For anyone who’s ever looked out the window and wondered whether that big plane is an Airbus or a Boeing
Spend enough time at the airport and you will eventually get bored of that novel you brought, your smartphone battery will run out and the duty-free shop will no longer provide you with any joy. It’s at that moment when you look out at the runway, gaze at the coming and goings of the aircraft that, without realizing it, you transform into a plane spotter.
You likely won’t become one of those hardcore enthusiasts staking out a spot at the end of runway, monitoring radio communications and running the registration number of every aircraft you see through a database, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a vague clue about the airplanes you see when you travel?
This bluffer’s guide to identifying the most common planes you’ll find in North American airports won’t turn you into a serious plane spotter, but it will arm you with enough information that you’ll be able to amaze your friends and family when you can tell the difference between an Airbus and a Boeing. It’s when you can tell a Fokker from a Saab then you need to worry that you’re veering into serious plane-spotting territory.
Identifying commercial planes at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is fairly easy since the only passenger aircraft operated on the island airport by Porter Airlines and Air Canada Express are various models of Bombardier’s twin-engine Dash-8 turboprop. It’s when you connect to larger international airports that you will encounter a dizzying array of similar-looking aircraft.
It may seem an impossible task to tell one plane from the other, but plane spotting is a lot like birdwatching. It’s all about observing things in the sky and looking for the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them.
The most important identifying features that will help you distinguish one plane from the next is the number of engines it has and where they are placed. From there, you look for winglets on the end of the wings and the shape of the nose or tail. That’s usually enough information to make an identification, but sometimes you have to look more closely at things like the shape of the engines or the placement of the landing gear in order to be sure of what you’re looking at.
These photos will help you identify the most common commercial aircraft that you will see at North American airports:
IF IT HAS TWO ENGINES ON THE TAIL
Most often a plane with two jet engines near the tail will belong to one of two lines of smallish regional jets: the Canadian-made Bombardier CRJ series, or its Brazilian rival, the Embraer ERJ
Bombardier, formerly Canadair, has several models of regional jet. They are much smaller the average jet liner and are easy to spot because they have upswept winglets on their wingtips.
Brazil’s Embraer has several models of small regional jets which compete with Bombardier’s CRJ. They don’t have winglets and the airplane’s noses are pointier.
McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, MD-80, MD-90, Boeing 717
Any full-sized jet with twin engines on the tail will be The McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 or its descendant models. The DC-9 is an older plane so it is becoming less common, but its offshoots (MD-80, MD-90 and Boeing 717) are still common, even if production ceased on the last of these in 2006.
IF IT HAS TWO ENGINES UNDER THE WINGS
The most common type of commercial airliners have two engines under the wings and because there are so many models, it can be hard to tell them apart. It’s helpful to remember that there are smaller narrow-body planes and larger wide-body planes. Once you’ve determined a plane’s size, you can find characteristics to identify it from similar airplanes.
The world’s most popular airliner is the Boeing 737. It’s the only jet that Westjet flies, so they are a common sight at Canadian airports. It is a smallish plane and its most distinguishing feature is the V-connection that connects the tail to the body.
Boeing 737 (“Classic”)
Boeing 737 Next Gen
Boeing modernized its 737s with next-generation models. Look for that angled tail-fin seen on earlier versions and the addition of winglets on the wing tips.
Boeing 737 Max
Somewhat similar-looking to its Boeing 737 competitor, telling these two planes apart is quite difficult. Your best bet is to look for these clues: Airbus’s tailfin is straighter and the tail-end of the fuselage extends further back. Also look for smaller winglets that extend both up and down at the wing tip.
More confusion! Embraer’s jets combine some of the features of Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft so they can trip you up. Look for the continuous slope from the cockpit to the nose to identify them.
The Boeing 767 is a wide-body aircraft so the first thing you will notice is its larger size. To tell it apart from the very similar Airbus A300 family, look at how the fuselage at the tail tapers to the end. On the Airbus, the top of the fuselage continues in a straight line.
The Boeing 787 is another wide-body jet that looks similar to its competitors, but look for the zig-zag pattern at the rear of its jet engines to identify it. The wing tips lack winglets, but have a distinctive curve.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner
IF IT HAS TWO ENGINES ON THE TAIL (AND IT’S BIG)
The Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330 are some of the biggest long-range aircraft you’ll see at the airport. Air Canada flies both planes, so they’re fairly common to see in Canada. The Boeing’s tail-end is more tapered and the wing tips lack winglets.
You can spot an Airbus A330 because it is so large. To tell it apart from its Boeing 777 competitor, look for the narrower tail-end and the winglets on the wing tips.
You will start to see more A350 aircraft in the sky as airlines phase out earlier Airbus models. This wide-body plane is notable for its size and its unique upward-curving wing tips.
IF IT HAS THREE ENGINES ON THE TAIL (IT’S PROBABLY A 727)
Only one trijet with this configuration remains in service today in Western countries, the Boeing 727. It’s mostly used for cargo service, but some small South American airlines still operate it, as does an American charter airline. These planes are distinctive because they are the only ones still flying that have all three engines on the tail.
IF IT HAS FOUR ENGINES UNDER THE WINGS
Not many planes have four engines. Those that do are the largest commercial airliners in operation and fly the longest routes, so they are most common at large airports.
Probably the first plane anyone learns to recognize is the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, with its distinctive hump that houses the upper passenger deck. They are becoming a rare sight as airlines retire them in favour of more fuel-efficient designs.
Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet
Designed as a replacement for the Jumbo Jet, Airbus’ massive A380 is the world’s only double-decker airplane. They only connect a few of the world’s largest airports so count yourself lucky if you see one or even luckier if you get to fly on one.
If it has four engines and it’s not a Jumbo Jet or an A380, then its Airbus’s other long-haul workhorse, the A340. It’s no longer being made so they will become less common over time.
If you want to learn even more about airplanes, try these online plane spotting resources: