How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft

To the untrained eye, many commercial aircraft look similar. Sure, some stand out – such as the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 – but what about the A350 vs the Boeing 787, or the different members of the popular A320 family? This article looks at some of the most common aircraft today and how to tell them apart.

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Identifying different aircraft can be a challenge, but also fun! Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Identifying different aircraft

There are several things to look for when differentiating aircraft – including the number of engines, the landing gear, tail fin, nose shape, cockpit windows, and fuselage layout/exit doors. For each aircraft type, we will give a few of the main things to look for. There are plenty more though, feel free to share your favorites in the comments section.

We will start with the largest four-engine aircraft, then look at two-engine widebody (two aisles) aircraft and finally narrowbody (single-aisle) aircraft. This will include many of the main passenger aircraft flying today. To simplify things, some models and aircraft are not discussed – feel free to leave comments for ones you know!

Four engine aircraft – Quadjets

The number of engines is probably the easiest start. There are only a few aircraft with four engines – the Airbus A380 and A340 and the Boeing 747.

Airbus A380

The Airbus A380 doesn’t really need much of an explanation. As the only full two-deck aircraft flying today the A380 is easily identified! There may come a time there are more of these high-capacity aircraft, but with the production of the A380 now ending this would likely be some time away.

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A380  – The largest commercial aircraft operating today. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Boeing 747

Next down in size is the iconic Boeing 747. Several airlines are still flying the 747, but it is on its way out. The 747, of course, is easily identified with its four engines and unique partial upper deck. The larger 747-8 can be identified by its longer upper deck, with more windows.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
The 747-8 has a longer upper deck than the -400. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Airbus A340

The Airbus A340 is the third quadjet aircraft flying. This is a widebody single deck aircraft – the only one you will see today with four engines.

SAA Airbus A340-600
A340 quadjet – still operated by a number of airlines but no longer in production. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Widebody twinjets

There was a time when only four-engine aircraft operated long-haul over ocean flights. With improvements in safety and the permitted range of two-engine flights (so-called ETOPS ratings), twinjets have become more common.

Long-haul is changing again with the introduction of the long-range narrowbody A321XLR – a change that could be a defining point in the direction of aviation. Commercial widebody twinjets today include the Boeing 767, 777 and 787. And from Airbus, the A300, A330 and A350.

Worth mentioning here is a nice trick to identify the difference between Boeing and Airbus widebodies (most of the aircraft discussed here, but not the newer A350 and Boeing 787). Each manufacturer has a different design of the side-most of the six panels of the windscreen.

This can be hard to see at first, but is a useful identification trick. Boeing aircraft have an upwards slanting lower edge to the windscreen, whereas Airbus windows have a straight/horizontal lower edge.

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A330 cockpit windows; note the Airbus-style horizontal side window. Photo: Getty Images
Boeing 777 front view
Boeing 777 cockpit windows, with sloping side window. Photo: Getty Images

Boeing 767 and 777

These aircraft can be hard to tell apart from a distance. The easiest difference to note is with the landing gear. The 777 has three-wheel main landing gears, whereas the 767 has two wheels. The front landing gear is also positioned further forward on the 767.

There are a few other structural differences between the 767 and 777 that can help. The 777 has a ‘bladed’ tail design rather than the conical one found on the 767, and also Airbus aircraft. It also has no winglets where the 767 often (but not always!) does. The two General Electric engines on the 777 are also much larger.

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The 777’s bladed tail is a good way to tell it apart. Photo: Dubai Airports

The 767 has three variants – the 767-200, 767-300 and 767-400. The best way to identify these is by the position and number of the exit doors. The smaller 767-200 has one emergency exit door over the wing. The 767-300 has two emergency exits, usually over the wing but sometimes in front and behind. And the 767-400 has two doors, in front and behind the wing.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
The 767-400 is the largest of the family. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

The 777 has two variants – the 777-200 and the 777-300. These are easily distinguished by the number of exit doors. The longer 777-300 has five doors and the shorter 777-200 has four doors along each side.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
The largest 777-300 can be easily identified from its large engines and five doors. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

Boeing 787

Boeing’s newest twinjet is easy to distinguish. Its two engine housings both have a distinctive sawtooth jagged design. The 787 also has a sleeker nose than the 767 and 777.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
Boeing 787 – Note the serrated edge of the engine nacelles. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

The windscreen is also a different design from other Boeing aircraft, with a distinctive four-panel design. Most other aircraft (including the new Airbus A350) have a six-panel windscreen.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
Four panels make up the windscreen of the 787. Photo: Getty Images.

To distinguish the two 787 variants, look at the number of windows between the first two emergency exit doors. The shorter 787-8 has nine windows, and there is a second group of five windows on the longer 787-9 aircraft.

Airbus  A330

The Airbus A330 is easy to identify. It has a bulged center section of the fuselage between the wings. It also always has winglets – a traditional straight design as opposed to the curved ones on the A350.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
Note the bulged section in the center of the fuselage on the A330. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The main difference between the two variants A330-200 and A330-300 is the length. This is best seen by the number of windows between the first two doors, usually 12 on the A330-200 and 17 or 18 on the A330-300.

Airbus A350

This is also one of the easiest widebodies to identify as it has two unique features. It is the only one with curved winglets at the edge of both wings. It also has a distinctive six-frame windscreen.

British Airways A350
The distinctive windscreen on the Airbus A350. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

The two variants, A350-900 and A350-1000, differ by size. They have the same nose, winglets, and windscreen but can be identified either by length or by their landing gears. The A350-900 has a two-wheeled main landing gear, whereas the larger A350-1000 has a three-wheeled gear.

Narrowbody twinjets

Airbus A320 family

There are several ways to tell Airbus narrowbody aircraft from Boeing ones. Firstly. they have a more rounded nose than Boeing. And there are differences as well with the cockpit windscreens. Airbus aircraft have a straight lower edge on the side most windows (as opposed to a slanted one on Boeing aircraft), and also a notched upper corner.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
A rounder nose and straight lower edge on the windscreen identifies Airbus narrowbodies. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

The differences within the family of A319, A320, and A321 come down to size. The smaller A318 and A319 aircraft have just one overwing emergency exit door. The A318 is the shorter model, with a ‘stubby’ appearance.

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The A318 ‘baby bus’. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The A320 has two overwing exit doors. And the larger A321 has four doors spaced along the fuselage (not directly over the wing).

Boeing 737

The best way to distinguish the Boeing 737 from the Airbus family is by the nose. The 737 has a more pointed nose, whereas on the Airbus is it more rounded. There is also a difference with the tail. On the 737 there is a triangular dorsal-like fin leading from the top of the fuselage to the tail. This is not present on the Airbus aircraft.

How To Identify The Different Commercial Aircraft
A more pointed nose and dorsal-like tailfin tell you this is a Boeing. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

As noted above, the cockpit side most window is also different – slanted on the lower edge on the Boeing, and straight on the Airbus. There is also no ‘notch’ at the top corner.

There have been a number of different 737 models since it entered service in 1968. The most common you will see flying today are the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900. The best way to distinguish these is again by aircraft size.

The 737-700 has two main doors and one emergency exit door along each side. The 737-800 adds one more overwing exit door. The 737-900 is longer but with a similar configuration, although the 737-900ER adds one more exit door behind the wing.

The next generation 737 MAX will likely become a more common sight now that its problems are resolved. To identify this, look for the same Boeing differences plus a sawtooth/serrated engine housing (similar to that on the Boeing 787).

Aeromexico, Boeing 737 MAX, Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Like the Dreamliner, the MAX has serrated nacelles. Photo: Boeing

Boeing 757

The Boeing 757 is out of production but still flown by some airlines. This can be identified by its pointed (some say ‘dolphin-like’) nose. It lacks the triangular tail fin part seen on the 737 but has the same angled cockpit window.

DL 757
The Boeing 757 has a ‘dolphin-like nose. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

There are two 757 variants. The smaller 757-200 has three main fuselage doors plus either one exit behind the wing or two over the wing. The larger 757-300 has four main doors and two overwing exit doors.

Conclusion

You should now be much more able to identify many of the main commercial aircraft. It takes time to get used to some of the differences though, but hopefully, this article should help. There are many more things to look out for – some different ways to identify and also some variants and models not discussed here. Feel free to leave any more things you know in the comments.

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