Explained: What The Codes Mean Behind Airbus And Boeing Plane Names

Commercial aircraft names are something most aviation enthusiasts will be familiar with. Indeed, almost all of our readers will know the difference between an Airbus A350 and Airbus A380. It would be another safe statement to say that those same readers will know the difference between a Boeing 737-700 and 737-800. But what about the difference between a Boeing 737-824 and a 737-8CT? It’s all (or at least some) of these extra numbers (and letters) that we’ll attempt to decode in the following article.

A321 Neo AIEA, FRA 22-5-19
The upgraded engine version of the Airbus A321 is often referred to as the A321neo. However, there are five different A321neo variants, ranging from the A321-271N to the A321-253N. Photo: Lufthansa

Letters and numbers: An introduction

Since the beginning of aviation, most aircraft have been designated using a combination of letters and numbers. Even famous aircraft like the DeHavilland Comet and Lockheed Electra had alphanumeric designations DH 106 and L-188, respectively.

Although descriptive names like Comet and Electra are no longer featured in the names of modern commercial aircraft, they’re still present in many military aircraft. Think F/A-18 Hornet, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning. The closest proper name in commercial aircraft these days would probably be the 787 Dreamliner. However, it seems to stop there.

These days, the two big planemakers, Airbus and Boeing, stick closely to their own alphanumeric numbering system. This consists of the following parts:

  • The aircraft model
  • The model variant (in terms of size)
  • Engine type
  • And any additional letters used for designating other features

This article will examine today’s most popular commercial jets from Airbus and Boeing. It is in no way completely exhaustive. Instead, it is meant to provide a general understanding of what each of the various letters and numbers means within an aircraft’s name. Let’s begin!

Nepal Airlines Boeing 757-200M
Nepal Airlines was the only customer that ordered a Boeing 757-200M – a combi variant of the 757-200. Photo: Simon Butler via Flickr 

Boeing commercial aircraft families

Being the older of the two planemakers, let’s first start with Boeing aircraft. At the most basic level, you’ll probably know that the company’s commercial lineup takes a “7X7” pattern: 707, 717, 727, and so on, until reaching 787.

Without getting too much into the history of Boeing’s naming convention (there’s another article for that), it should be noted that Boeing assigned the number 700 to jet engines. The planemaker’s first commercial jetliner was to be named the “Boeing 700”. However, the marketing team at Boeing thought that adding a “7” to the end just sounded better- which is how the “Boeing 707” came into the world. One exception to this that’s worth mentioning is the Boeing 720- which was a shorter variant of the 707 used for operating shorter routes and taking off from shorter runways.

Alaska B737
The Boeing 737-900 is the longest 737 model in the company’s 737 NG (Next Generation) series. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Boeing numbers “after the hyphen”

Since the 707, Boeing’s naming convention for commercial jets has held firm with its 7X7 pattern. Indicating the aircraft type, these jets have always had an additional set of letters and numbers added.

For all Boeing commercial families, a hyphen follows the model. Most often, up until recent times, three digits have been added. These three numbers represent the series within the model. The series numbers tend to indicate two general differentiators: Aircraft size and aircraft generation.

The 737 family is the most interesting case for designation variations as each generation has had several series. The 737 family of aircraft began with the -100 but has gone all the way up to the -900. Here is how the generations and series divide:

  • 737 Original: -100 and -200. The -200 is a lengthened version of the -100.
  • 737 Classic: -300, -400, -500. The -400 was a stretch of the -300, but slightly counterintuitively, the -500 is a shrunken version of the -300.
  • 737 Next Generation (NG): -600, -700, -800, -900. The -600 was an update to the short -500 and is the smallest of the NG series. Unlike the numbering of the Classic series, each ascending number corresponds to a further stretch of the 737, with the -900 being the longest of the NG aircraft.
  • 737 MAX: The naming of this series of 737s took a departure from previous generations, using single digits rather than triple (just like the 787 family). For MAX jets, the shortest in the family is the MAX 7. The aircraft get longer with ascending numbers: MAX 8, MAX 9, and the longest being the MAX 10. At times some carriers have dropped the word MAX from the name. For example, while Air Canada calls it the 737 MAX 8, Singapore Airlines calls the same type of aircraft a “737-8.” One oddity is the 737 MAX 200, which is a high-density variant of the MAX 8.
Singapore Airlines Boeing 737 MAX
Singapore Airlines has dropped the “MAX” wording from its 737 MAX aircraft. Photo: Singapore Airlines

When looking at the most specific of model numbers, it appears that Boeing has assigned the very last two of the three digits as identifiers for the original customer of the aircraft (up until a certain point). For example, 737-800s built for Delta are designated the 737-832. Take a look below at other 737-800s and their customers, and how the last two numbers (or letters) change:

  • American Airlines: 737-823
  • Continental Airlines (now operated by United): 737-824
  • Ryanair: 737-8AS
  • Southwest: 737-8H4
  • WestJet: 737-8CT

So, can you guess what airline operates a Boeing 737-924?

It looks like Boeing decided to drop these last distinctions for newer jets as they don’t seem to appear for 787 and 737 MAX aircraft. But while the newest 747s are referred to as 747-8s, their “full names” do appear to have three digits after the hyphen. Thus, Boeing aircraft purpose-built for Korean Air all end in B5. Their 737-900s are “737-9B5” while their 747-8 passenger jets are “747-8B5” (Lufthansa operates the 747-830).

Additional Boeing letters

Oftentimes, additional letters come at the end of an aircraft’s model and series. These suffixes are another descriptor of the jet, further distinguishing it from other aircraft of the same type and size. Suffixes used for Boeing aircraft include:

  • ER: Extended range
  • LR: Long-range
  • SR: Short-range
  • ERSF: Extended range, special freighter
  • BDSF: BEDEK Special freighter
  • SCD: Side cargo door
  • C: Convertible. This means the aircraft can convert between a passenger aircraft and freighter)
  • F: Freighter
  • M: Combi. These are aircraft with both dedicated cargo sections and passenger sections.
  • BCF: Boeing converter freighter
  • i (intentionally lowercase): Intercontinental. Specifically applicable to the 747-8, the 747-8i is simply the passenger variant of Boeing’s final 747 generation.
The 767-300BCF is a passenger 767 that has been converted into a freighter. Photo: Boeing.

Airbus commercial aircraft families

The website Travel and Leisure notes that Airbus’ first ever commercial passenger aircraft was the A300. In this case, the A stood for Airbus, and the 300 reflected the aircraft’s passenger capacity. Although Airbus realized that the aircraft would perform better with just 260 passengers, it stuck with using “300” rather than A260. In this case, the aircraft was called the A300B.

Likely realizing that names based on passenger capacity could get messy, the planemaker held on to its A3XX pattern- or A3X0 to be more specific. This is why we have the A310, A320, A330, A340, A350, and A380 families.

Just like Boeing, these aircraft families further divide into various models, designated with a hyphen and three digits.

Using the single-generation A340 family, we have the following variants, which get larger in size as the variant number gets higher:

  • A340-200
  • A340-300
  • A340-500
  • A340-600

You can read about why an A340-400 doesn’t exist in this article.

While the last two digits are often a pair of zeros when identifying the aircraft, these last two digits can get more specific.

Excluding the fourth digit “N suffix” for neo aircraft (explained below), the last two numbers of Airbus jets simply describe the type of engine used on the aircraft. For example, there are three engine variants for the Airbus A380-800:

  • A380-841: Trent 970-84/970B-84
  • A380-842: Trent 972-84/972B-84
  • A380-861: Engine Alliance GP7270
Singapore Airlines is the only customer for the Airbus A350-900ULR. The ULR stands for “ultra-long-range,” which in itself gives a fairly accurate description of what makes it special. Photo: Airbus

The A320 family

It’s difficult to present rules and conventions when the planemakers themselves break the pattern every now and then. The A320 family is another example of this.

While Boeing’s narrowbody 737 family across its multiple generations have its suffixes that vary according to size, Airbus’ A320 family moves up and down in size with the last two digits. Thus, the Airbus A318 is the smallest member within the A320 family. Moving up is the A319, then the A320, and finally, the A321 is the longest version.

All A318 and A319s were -100s. Meanwhile, the A320 and A321 jets had both -100 and -200 variants. The -100s had lower MTOWs than their -200 counterparts, which were heavier and had structural modifications to handle increases in fuel capacity.

Airbus has modernized both the A320 and A330 families with “neo” versions- with the three letters standing for “new engine option.” As a result, the older generation have been referred to as ceos, or “current engine options.” Those who want to be more technical may simply refer to the older ceo variants with their three-digit suffixes (-100 or -200).

The neo designation gets further complicated, as the A320neo family uses a three-digit suffix followed by an “N.” If an aircraft code ends with NX, then the aircraft has been fitted with Airbus Cabin Flex to maximize capacity (which also means the number of emergency exits is different.)

The entire Qantas A380 fleet is made up of A380-842 aircraft, meaning that they are fitted with the higher thrust Trent 972 engine. Photo: Vincenzo Pace/Simple Flying

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Additional Airbus letters

Just like Boeing, Airbus attaches additional suffixes to further distinguish its aircraft from other jets of the same type and size. Here are some examples:

It’s a lot of information to absorb- and can certainly get confusing as there are so many differing patterns and structures for each aircraft family. Despite the chaos, we hope this article has been able to shed a little bit of light on the naming conventions of the two big planemakers and their various jets.

Was there anything missing in explaining the various numbers and letters? Did you know about all of these designators? Let us know by leaving a comment.