Maybe you’re going on a trip and wondering what pressurized aluminum tube you’re going to be stuffed into. Or perhaps you live near an airport and you want to know what just rattled your windows for the 5th time since lunch. Well I’ve got you covered.
Note: I’m only talking about airliners that are currently in service. If you want to talk about VC-10s or 707s we’ll have to save that for another day.
Even though I fly these for a living, I frequently have to “deadhead” on commercial flights so much of the time I’m just self-loading baggage like the rest of you.
I’ll start with the little guys. Generally I’m of the opinion that bigger is better. I prefer not to get on anything smaller than an Embraer 170, but frequently I have no choice.
So you thought that ticket you bought from Chicago to New York was on Delta, but when you get to the gate it’s actually on “Delta Connection (Operated by Bubba-Jet)”.
All I can say is you’re probably going to regret some of your life choices. Welcome to the wonderful world of regional airlines. You want a tiny bag of peanuts? What do you think this is, 1977?
It’s a bit like prison, except with weather delays.
I have ridden on these exactly once. I’m told it’s a great flying little plane, which is good because it doesn’t have an autopilot. Holds a whopping 19 people. At least it’s pressurized.
You’re not likely to fly on one of these but there are still a few of them running around out there. If you’re on anything smaller than this you’re probably sitting next to the pilot.
Back in the days of 19-seat regional turboprops I thought the Saab 340 was big in comparison. Last time I got on one was about 10 years ago and it seemed tiny.
If you’re lucky enough to get one of these you’ll be intimately acquainted with 33 of your closest friends. Enjoy. My coworkers who used to fly these tell me that they are sturdy but under powered.
Some of our “feeders” fly these. I’ve never been on one but I’m told it’s basically a turboprop Airbus. These once had problems with icing that have been addressed with better deicing boots and improved crew training and procedures.
You can tell an ATR by the stubby looking fuselage. Note that the landing gear retracts into the belly.
De Havilland Dash 8/Q300/Q400
It may be cramped and slow but at least it’s noisy. I avoid turboprops if at all possible mostly because I don’t enjoy plowing through the weather at 20,000 feet. These are fine on a nice day, but you likely don’t know what the weather is going to be when you book your flight.
If you have to get on a turboprop the Q400 is probably the best of the bunch.
A Dash-8 is noticeably shorter than a Q400. Note that the landing gear is mounted under the engine pods.
The only reason Dante didn’t make the Embraer 145 his 9th Circle of Hell was the airplane hadn’t been invented when he penned the Inferno. The seats are not designed to comfortably fit anyone older than age 10.
People tell me that these are fun to fly but the cockpit gets cramped after a while. The passenger compartment gets cramped the moment you sit in it.
I was once stuffed into one of these all the way from Miami to Columbus Ohio and my back has never been the same.
It’s hard to tell these apart from a Canadair CRJ. The “Jungle Jet” has a more pointed nose than its Canadian counterpart and has a skinnier fuselage.
If you have to fly on one of these, try to get on the side with only seat, and may God have mercy on your soul.
I love Canada but I haven’t forgiven them for unleashing this implement of torture on the world.
The CRJ is similar to the Embraer 145 except it’s wider. This allows them to fit two barely adequate seats on each side for maximum discomfort.
The 900 is a bit longer and sometimes has a small First/Business Class section which isn’t too bad if you’re fortunate enough to sit there. I probably wouldn’t waste my money if it’s a 45-minute flight. If you’re going a longer distance (and you may be) you might come out ahead when you factor in the price of physical therapy.
I have never flown on one of these little 4-engine jets but I would love to because they look so cool. The RAF uses these as a VIP transport. If it’s good enough for the Queen of England then it’s good enough for me.
I’ve never been in one, but the pictures show six-across seating which looks cramped in a plane of this size. Hopefully you’re going between two relatively close European cities (in which case I’d probably take the train).
I actually don’t mind these too much. You could certainly do a lot worse. These are the biggest of the “little” planes and the seats were actually designed to fit human beings rather than invertebrates. Certainly not the greatest, but I can at least spend an hour back there without needed a chiropractor.
They look enough like a baby Airbus that even I have a hard time telling them apart sometimes. The biggest difference, other than size, is the Embraer has a more pointed nose.
”And those Fokkers were flying Messerschmitts!” (old joke)
You’re not real likely to get on one of these but they’re still flying around various places.
American and US Air called this the “Barbie Fun-Jet” back when they flew them. I’ve also heard it called the “Double-date Jet” because it has two pilots and two flight attendants.
Flew on one once a long time ago. Don’t remember much so it must not have been notably good or bad.
Looks an awful lot like a DC-9 except it has a big clam-shell speedbrake in the tail.
A narrow-body airliner is your basic “mainline” jet that mostly operates between larger markets these days. They typically have six seats to a row in coach with a single aisle down the middle. The middle seat is inevitably between two NFL linemen or professional wrestlers.
I’m amazed the airlines keep these around because they’re old and not very efficient. It’s probably because they’re paid for, the same reason we had 727s on our ramp until 2013. Paid for covers a multitude of sins.
These are fairly quiet unless you sit back by the engines. Ride quality is pretty good. I once rode the cockpit jump-seat on one of these. Having flown Boeing products most of my life a Douglas is like alien technology.
If it’s short and stubby looking it’s a DC-9. If it’s long and slender it’s probably an MD-80/88/90, sometimes called the “Mad Dog” or the “Long Beach Sewer Tube”. Pretty much all of the true DC-9s have been retired from passenger service so you’re much more likely to see an MD something or other.
But wait! There’s more! You might just get on a Boeing 717, which was going to be the MD-95 until Boeing bought out McDonnell Douglas.
These have an odd seating configuration with two seats on one side and three on the other. If you have a choice sit on the side with only two seats and try to avoid the back of the plane. That last row by the engines and the lav is pretty awful.
Airbus A320 and friends
The A320 is your basic single-aisle narrow body airliner. Six across seating in coach. Seats around 150 people depending on how it’s set up. They’ve built a gazillion of these so pretty good chance you’ll end up riding on one.
The A321 is a stretched version of the A320 that holds 185 or so people. The only way you’re going to tell you’re on an A321 is if the little safety card in your seat says “A321” instead of “A320”.
The A318 and A319 are shortened versions of the A320. You can tell you’re on a “baby bus” if it looks likes a tadpole. The A318 looks really stubby because it has a very tall tail on a very short fuselage.
As a passenger I can’t tell much difference between the A320 series and the 737. The Airbus fuselage is a little wider so potentially the seats could be a little roomier.
Pilots love the 757 but accountants love the 737, so guess which one you’re likely to fly on. This is the most common airliner in the world. They’re like bellybuttons, everybody’s got one.
They come in multiple versions from the stubby little 737-100 to the massively stretched 737-900.
The 737 is built on mid 1960s technology. I’ve never flown one, but the systems appear to have more in common with a 727 than a 757. Makes sense since the 737 was introduced just a few years after the 727.
There are things we can do in the 757 that the 737 can’t do. For example, we can put flaps and speed brakes out at the same time which is a big help when you get a clearance like “Hold 180 knots to the marker”.
The stretched versions of the 737 are almost the same size as a 757 but have half as many tires and brakes so I can’t imagine they stop nearly as well.
The classic 737-200 has a short fuselage and skinny engines. The stretched versions have large CFM engines that have been squished on the bottom for ground clearance.
I’m biased but I love the 757. Works great and has few quirks. It’s reliable, has gobs of thrust, and is easy to land. Has a decent ride but it will shimmy from side-to-side in turbulence.
You can tell a 757 because it’s long, slender and sits up high on its landing gear. The nose slopes sharply forward. Some have skinny Rolls Royce engines and others have wide Pratt & Whitney engines. Some have winglets and some don’t.
I’m biased but I’d say it’s one of the best looking airliners out there.
A note on winglets. They save fuel at cruise but there is a weight penalty for carrying them up to altitude. They only save money if you’re at cruise for a certain length of time. I don’t what that time is but I’m sure some corporate bean-counter somewhere has it on a spreadsheet.
I can remember the glory days before deregulation, when would probably get a DC-10 or L1011 going across the country. Even better, it was probably only half full. Today you’re not likely to get on a wide-body unless you’re going international. You may see one on a domestic route between very large markets like New York to LA.
In coach class a wide-body likely has two aisles. There will be 5 or 6 seats in the middle and usually two seats by each window. If I have my choice I try to avoid that middle section.
These are popular on international routes. Has a good ride. I can’t say anything bad about them. You could do a lot worse. One of the few Airbus products I would consider attractive.
These can be tough to distinguish from a 777. The big difference, besides the 777 being larger, is that the 777 has six wheels on each main landing gear.
If it has four engines and it’s not a jumbo jet then it’s probably an A340.
Unless you’re flying international you probably won’t see one of these. I think it’s one of the better riding planes I’ve flown on. Airlines don’t like them because they’re not economical. Two larger engines are inherently more efficient than four smaller ones. That’s why all airliners look the same these day.
It looks a lot like an A330 with a four smaller engines instead of two big ones. It also has a center landing gear.
This is my current ride and flies like a big Cadillac. Looks like a fatter version of a 757. May or may not have winglets. Ride quality is pretty comparable to an A330. Note that if you get into really heavy stuff it doesn’t really matter what you’re in except for maybe a 747.
There is nothing really distinctive about the 767 in terms of looks. It looks like a 757 that’s been spending time at the gym.
It can be hard to pick out a 777 because it looks like a super-sized version of a regular jet. Look at the main landing gear. If it has six wheels instead of the usual four then it’s a 777. The ginormous engines are also a giveaway. They're as big around as a 757 fuselage.
Great jet. Can’t say anything bad about it. The people who fly the “triple” have nothing but praise for it.
I’d be flying these today except I don’t really want to go 14 hours to Osaka and spend two weeks flying around the world. That’s a long time to spend in a pressurized aluminum tube, even one as nice as the 777. You either really love that kind of flying or you don’t.
What can I say about the iconic 747 that hasn’t already been said? There is no mistaking the distinctive profile of a 747.
The hump behind the cockpit, by the way, is for the Captain’s wallet.
Sadly I have never flown on one of these. I am told that to this day there is no better way to cross an ocean. These are being phased out, partly due to their age and mostly because two-engine aircraft are more efficient. You’ll see them hauling cargo for quite a few more years.
I know very little about these except it’s a very nice looking jet. The nose reminds me of the old
de Havilland Comet. The engines have a distinctive “sawtooth” at the rear of the cowling. The wings are very slender and bird-like in flight.
They used a tremendous amount of composites in this aircraft, making it lighter and more fuel efficient.
Systems wise this is as close you can get to an “electric jet”. Just about everything that used to be run by hydraulics or pneumatics is powered electrically on the Dreamliner. It has six (count ‘em) generators. Two on each engine plus two on the Auxiliary Power Unit. That’s twice the number on most airliners. There were a few problems early on with the lithium-ion batteries but these have since been fixed.
If you’ve been on one of these you know more than I do. It’s supposed to be one of the more comfortable cabins. They actually humidify the cabin air so it doesn’t suck all the moisture out of your body like a normal airliner.
I know next to nothing about the A350 except that it replaces the A340 and goes up against the 787 and 777.
From a technology standpoint it’s comparable to the 787. It doesn’t make as much use of electrics as the Dreamliner but it does some cool stuff with the wing like variable camber and differential flaps. It sounds like FM (freakin’ magic) to me but the computers are constantly tweaking the wing for maximum efficiency.
I haven’t so much as seen one of these so you likely know more about them than I do.
If you’re on one of these you’ll know it. More like a ship than an airplane. I have flown on one exactly once and it was a great ride.
Don’t……..just…...don’t. Even Aeroflot buys Airbus and Boeing these days.
Not that they’re bad designs, but odds are they’re old and not well maintained. Of course, if you’re in the kind of place that is still operating Soviet-era airliners it may be safer than driving on what passes for roads there. Good luck.
While you probably won’t ride on a freighter you may see one from time to time. Mostly this is where old airliners go once the passenger carriers have worn them out. Since freight is more profitable than passengers, we don’t have to have the newest, most fuel efficient jets (although we like them).
A handful of these are still flying passengers but most have been converted to freighters. Looks a lot like a 767 but actually predates the Boeing product. The easiest way to distinguish this from a 767 is to look at the tail. The Airbus tail is horizontal on top and slopes up sharply from the bottom. The 767 tail is symmetrical, like a cone. An A310 is just a shortened version of an A300.
There is no mistaking a “Diesel 10” with that third engine sitting up in the tail. An MD-10 is a DC-10 that has been converted to a two-person cockpit. Nobody flies passengers in these any more.
An MD-11 looks like a DC-10 but is larger and has winglets. I believe KLM had the last passenger versions and they were retired a few years ago. These were never popular with the passenger haulers for economic reasons but freight outfits like them. I’m told these are a bit tricky to land. They have a fast approach speed and a relatively small horizontal stabilizer.
I tried to cover most of the common types that are currently in service. I know I left out some of the turboprops like the Shorts 360 (looks like the box it came in). I’m sure you’ll let me know if I forgot one of your favorites.