How To Tell Airplanes Apart

How To Tell Airplanes Apart

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The miles & points world has all kinds of different enthusiasts — some people are only interested in miles & points in order to save money on travel, while others are interested in miles & points because they love airplanes. I know there are plenty of people who are very frequent flyers but can barely tell the difference between an Airbus A380 and Boeing 747.

In this post I figured I’d share how I easily identify planes in a split second. Of course there are lots of methods for doing this, but I figured I’d share mine (and maybe other hardcore avgeeks can chime in with their methods in the comments section).

To keep things simple, I’ll just stick to the most popular wide body aircraft (though if readers find this interesting, I’m happy to do a post about narrow body aircraft as well). That’s probably complicated enough, given all the variants of aircraft nowadays. Let’s start with Boeing aircraft, and then we’ll cover Airbus aircraft.

Boeing 747 characteristics

As far as I’m concerned, the Boeing 747 will always be the queen of the skies. While the Airbus A380 has overtaken it in terms of size and passenger comfort, it can’t compete with the 747’s curves. The 747 has a full lower deck and then a partial upper deck, making it easy to identify.

While the passenger version of the 747 is becoming increasingly rare nowadays, there are two types that are most common — the 747-400 and the 747-8 (and no, it’s not the 747-800).

How can you tell the difference between the two planes? For one, the 747-400 has traditional winglets that stick “up.” On top of that, the 747-400 has a smaller upper deck. Behind the upper deck exit row, there are only seven windows on each side.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-400

As a point of comparison, the 747-8’s wingtips gradually go up, and the upper deck is bigger, with 15 windows on each side behind the upper deck exit row.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8

The rear of the 747-8’s engines are also similar to those of the 787, with a zig-zag pattern, as I’ll explain below.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8

Boeing 767 characteristics

From a distance, it’s not unreasonable to think that a 767 and 777 look alike. I even sometimes make that mistake. It’s especially tricky since there’s the 767-300 and 767-400, and they’re roughly proportional to the 777-200 and 777-300 in terms of their dimensions.

What makes identifying the 767 especially tough is that many airlines have “modified” them. Some airlines have winglets on the 767, while others don’t. Some airlines have two doors on each side of the 767-300, while others have three doors.

So let me make this simple — at the base of each wing, the 767 has two sets of two wheels. In other words, on each side there are four wheels, for a total of 10 wheels on the plane (including the two nose wheels). Meanwhile the 777 has three sets of two wheels at the base of each wing, for a total of six wheels on each side. I know this might sound minor, but I’ve actually found it to be a very easy way to tell the planes apart.

Boliviana de Aviacion Boeing 767-300

How can you tell the difference between the 767-300 and 767-400? The 767-300 has at most three sets of doors on each side (and sometimes just two), while the 767-400 has four sets of doors on each side.

Delta Boeing 767-400

Boeing 777 characteristics

For me there are three identifying characteristics of the 777 — two huge engines, no winglets, and a total of 14 wheels (two in the front, and six in the back on each side, with three rows of wheels there).

But how do you tell the difference between a Boeing 777-200 and a Boeing 777-300?

A Boeing 777-200 has just four doors on each side of the aircraft (one in the very front, one in front of the wing, one behind the wing, and one in the very back).

American Boeing 777-200

Meanwhile the 777-300 has five doors on each side of the aircraft (one in the very front, one in front of the wing, one immediately behind the wing, one a bit further back, and one in the very back).

American Boeing 777-300

Boeing 787 characteristics

The easiest way to identify the 787 is by the zig-zag “cut outs” in the back of the engine. Also, the wings have a unique shape. While there aren’t abrupt winglets, the wings “stretch” pretty high up.

Ethiopian Boeing 787-8

How do you tell the difference between the 787-8, 787-9, and 787-10? Personally I can eyeball it pretty easily, but it can be tough for some people to do, since all versions of the plane have four exits on each side, similar wings, the same number of wheels, etc.

The only real difference between the planes is the length — the 787-8 is 186 feet long, the 787-9 is 206 feet long, and the 787-10 is 224 feet long. That’s a pretty significant difference, as the longest version is over 20% longer than the shortest version.

I think a 787-8 is pretty easy to spot, because it looks quite small from the outside. Usually I look at the number of windows between the first and second set of doors. If there are 10 or fewer windows on each side (including ones that are “blacked out”), it’s a 787-8.

United Boeing 787-8

Meanwhile if there are more than 10 but fewer than 15 windows on each side between the first and second set of doors, it’s the 787-9.

United Boeing 787-9

If there are more than 15 windows between the first and second set of doors on each side, it’s the 787-10.

United Boeing 787-10

Airbus A330 characteristics

The major challenge with identifying the A330 is that there are two very different types of these planes — there’s the A330-200/300, which is the original version of the plane, and then there’s the A330-800/900neo, which is the new version of the plane. To some people, the A330-900neo may look more like an A350-900 than an A330-300.

Let’s start with the A330-200/300. This plane is pretty “proportional” looking, and can easily be identified by the fact that it has two engines and the most “traditional” winglets out there. The winglets are an easy way to differentiate it from the other twin-engine wide bodies out there. Furthermore, the plane has four doors on each side.

Delta Airbus A330-300

The A330-800/900neo has a similar body style, except the winglets are different. While the A330-200/300 winglets are wide and point almost straight up, the A330-800/900neo winglets get narrower, and curve a bit more.

Corsair Airbus A330-900neo

The A330neo and A350 have similar general designs, though there is a big difference in the wingtips, as you’ll see below when I cover the A350. If anyone has any other easy ways to spot the difference between the two planes, please let me know.

Airbus A340 characteristics

The A340 is a single deck plane with four engines, which makes it pretty easy to identify, since it’s the only non-double decker that has four engines. But how do you tell the difference between the A340-200/300 and A340-600? Okay, truth be told there aren’t a lot of these planes flying anymore, so there aren’t many situations where you’ll have to do that. But still…

The A340-200/300 has engines that looks disproportionately small (like, are these things gonna propel us through the sky at 500 miles per hour, or dry my hair?), and also has just four doors on each side of the aircraft.

SWISS Airbus A340-300

Meanwhile the A340-600 is a gorgeous, beastly work of art. It’s so long, so skinny, and has appropriately sized-looking engines. There are also five doors on each side of the aircraft. Personally after the 747, I find the A340-600 to be the most beautiful plane.

Lufthansa Airbus A340-600

Airbus A350 characteristics

The Airbus A350 has two main identifying characteristics — an extremely sleek design (especially near the nose, and with the Batman-looking cockpit windows), and very “steep” winglets (they’re not gradual, unlike the 787).

Air France Airbus A350-900

How do you tell the difference between the A350-900 and A350-1000? There are two many differences.

For one, the A350-900 has 10 wheels, while the A350-1000 has 14 wheels. The difference comes from the base of each wing having six wheels (three rows of two) rather than four wheels (two rows of two).

That’s because the A350-1000 is the stretched version of the A350-900. The easiest other way to tell the difference is based on the number of windows between doors one and two. The A350-900 has somewhere around 15 windows on each side between the first two sets of doors.

Philippine Airlines Airbus A350-900

Meanwhile the A350-1000 has over 20 windows on each side between the first and second set of doors.

Cathay Pacific Airbus A350-1000

Airbus A380 characteristics

I don’t think anyone has trouble identifying this whale-jet, given that it has two full decks.

Emirates Airbus A380

Bottom line

Understandably not everyone can spot the difference between airplanes, because, well, to most people it doesn’t actually matter. That being said, for us avgeeks it’s often a favorite pastime. Hopefully the above is a simple guide that can help people tell apart planes, should they be interested in learning a bit more.

While there are lots of other differences, I figure it makes sense to highlight some of the most “obvious” tricks, as opposed to studying each plane in great detail.

To fellow avgeeks, I’d be curious to hear how you easily tell planes apart!

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  1. Robert Guest

    I love seeing the FedEx/UPS MD-11s fly over, love the tail engine look!

  2. Mach2Boy Guest

    Also, A350 vs. B787…
    A350 has six cockpit windows. B787 has four.

  3. Kevin R Guest

    Ben there is a much easier way to distinguish a 777 from a 767. Just look at the shape of the auxiliary engine exhaust under the tail at the back of the plane. The 767 is cone shaped, while the 777 flattens out with the exhaust only visible on the left side. No wheel or window counting required

  4. Wilhelm Guest

    A true enthusiast will also be able to identify submodels and engine types. Eg, does the 747-400 have P&W, GE or RR engines? Is it a 737-500 or -600? Etc. I love being an avgeek.

  5. Nolan Guest

    Very informative article, especially for those who have difficulty knowing which airplane is which. And even for those who don't know the variants when it comes to the series number, it's a start for those of us who can tell the variants apart and indicate to those who don't to look first for 1) number of engines 2) single deck or double deck 3) wingtips. The number of windows is a great guide especially among...

    Very informative article, especially for those who have difficulty knowing which airplane is which. And even for those who don't know the variants when it comes to the series number, it's a start for those of us who can tell the variants apart and indicate to those who don't to look first for 1) number of engines 2) single deck or double deck 3) wingtips. The number of windows is a great guide especially among the various variants on the newer planes of Airbus and Boeing. It will get more interesting when the guide to identifying the narrowbody (737 and A320 family) numeral series variants comes out.

    What I can see next is an article that differentiate the various engine makes on each aircraft. Consider that for those who want advanced level and then it will move on to identifying planes by their engine sounds.

  6. Morgan Gold

    Great article Ben, please do one for the narrowbodys!

  7. TropicalTees Guest

    You missed a big one, the difference between a 737 and a320 - 737 tails have an extra wedge where it connects to the plane.

  8. Ben M Guest

    Re: A330 vs A350 the nose geometry is different. The A330 has a rounder nose (similar shape to a 737), while the A350 has a flatter, more triangular nose- more like a 787. Note: over time the nose profile will likely cease to be a distinguishing factor among newer planes since the triangular nose geometry is optimized by computational fluid dynamics. You will notice this geometry appearing on all new (not derivative) planes. A220 has similar shape nose.

  9. Ryan Guest

    I find the proportions of the tail area often help to identify an aircraft. The A330 (and A340) is the easiest in that regard, the top of the tail section where the vertical stabiliser attaches doesn't taper down at all, whereas most other aircraft do. The tail is also useful for telling between an A320 and a 737, the 737 has a very stubby tail, whereas the rear of the A320 at the APU exhaust comes to more of a point.

  10. Kathy Cross Guest

    Love this discussion. My two favorite planes are the 747 and A340-600. It's getting hard to see them anymore though.

  11. Jay Guest

    Surprised you didn’t mention the A330 horizontal stabilizer seal, which looks like a frog eye and is a distinguishing feature of the A330.

  12. SBS Guest

    Ben, I'm surprised you find it easier to tell 767 from 777 by the number of wheels, rather than by the distinctive flattened side-exhaust tail cone of the 777.

    1. IvarViking Guest

      The Delta A330 (labeled 200) is actually an A330-300.

      NWA initially acquired the -300 before the shorter, longer-range -200, this the -300s have no the lower registration numbers (e.g. N803NW).

    2. at Guest

      oh yes, great point- the flat tail cone is a perfect identifier, as no other aircraft has it.

  13. John Densem Guest

    A350’s cockpit window looks like a raccoon’s ‘mask’.
    Aren’t the engines on the B737 MAX also scalloped like on the B787s?

  14. Richard Guest

    Ben, you missed the easiest trait for the 777 - the flat APU exhaust in the tail. See that on a large plane and it can only be the 777! (The 767 is a snozzle)

    More tricky are these 330’s. Boring looking planes.

    1. AT Guest

      for me hardest always used to be the different 767 variants, especially given the different door options.
      Also three other subtler distinctions for the 767-400 versus earlier models:
      -- raked wingtips (not always easy to spot unlike a wingtip)
      -- the windows are rounder (more like a 777s) whereas the -300/-200 have more square versions
      -- in the -400 version only there's a small break in the window line between doors...

      for me hardest always used to be the different 767 variants, especially given the different door options.
      Also three other subtler distinctions for the 767-400 versus earlier models:
      -- raked wingtips (not always easy to spot unlike a wingtip)
      -- the windows are rounder (more like a 777s) whereas the -300/-200 have more square versions
      -- in the -400 version only there's a small break in the window line between doors 3 and 4.

      Ben, not all 767s have 3 doors, some like British Airways had four door layouts similar to the 767-400s.

    2. gpb_croppers63 New Member

      Indeed, the BA 763s were the first that came to mind when reading this article!

  15. Francisco C Guest

    During my early years of reading this blog around 10 years, I asked for this exact post and you graciously complied. I recently started thinking an updated post would be very useful. You read my mind. Congrats on having the best travel blogger website!

  16. derek Guest

    This is why I HATE Air Canada. Their current livery is like a bank robber, black around the cockpit windows. They should stop their dishonesty. They are just like Justin Trudeau, who thinks he is cool, yet secretly vacations during the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

    Aircraft identification can be easy if the photo or if your view is good but tougher if you are at the gate and can only see the...

    This is why I HATE Air Canada. Their current livery is like a bank robber, black around the cockpit windows. They should stop their dishonesty. They are just like Justin Trudeau, who thinks he is cool, yet secretly vacations during the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

    Aircraft identification can be easy if the photo or if your view is good but tougher if you are at the gate and can only see the nose of the plane. Not impossible, though. If you only see the nose, it is tough to figure out the series of the plane, like 787-9 versus 787-10 or 737-800 vs. -900ER

  17. KuBear Guest

    Great article Ben! Thanks for taking the time to write this. A narrow body version would be awesome to read as well.

  18. Ray Vine Guest

    Yes the B-777 have square finish in the back ( like a B-52 ) and 767 - 787 and Airbus have a traditional round outlet of APU . With the winglet it is the best way to differentiate the styles .

  19. DaninMCI Guest

    When on the ground at the airport I always just look at the nose gear flaps that usually show it. Sometimes you'll also notice the markings on the ground at some airports which is another clue.

  20. Trey Guest

    The one that used to be challenging for me was telling difference between B767 and A330.

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      Simple: look for the slight rise in the windows at the rear of the A330

  21. tuotuo Guest

    Please do a narrow body section

  22. GSmith Guest

    Dead give away for me on the 777 is the how the APU exhaust on the tail looks - it comes out of one side of tail (and how the tail comes to a flathead screwdriver point at the exhaust).

  23. GBOAC Diamond

    One spotting characteristic of the A330 family that you did not mention is the slight upward slope of the rear windows. That's what I look for immediately in a A330.

  24. Ovacikar Guest

    Why would the LH A340 have the reverse thrust on before having the nose wheel down?

    What if there is an obstacle on the runway unseen to the pilots because of the nose angle, requiring to abort the landing and take off asap?

  25. Art_Czar New Member

    I'd qualify your statement about the A340 being "the only non-double decker that has four engines" by adding "that the 2 companies have manufactured for commercial passenger aviation, barring the B707, which is no longer in service."

    1. Ryan Guest

      And the DC-8, which is still flying in cargo service!

  26. John Guest

    Super-awesome article, Ben! Plesse do one on short-haul aircrew, pretty please!

  27. Paul Guest

    The A350 has a lower pointed nose compared to the A330neo.

  28. Ian Guest

    Very surprised you didn't mention the 777 tail exhaust port. Dead giveaway. I've never had issues with 777 vs 767, but more often 767 vs 757 when I can't judge scale well from a distance. I prefer the characteristics you can just eyeball (front shape of 787, tail of 737, 777 exhaust, etc.) versus counting wheels and doors.

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      Agree totally about the 777 tail. A long time ago a fellow airplane spotter described it as the "screwdriver" tail.

  29. Dizzy Guest

    Another very distinctive 777 feature is the flat tail cone.

    1. Chris S. Guest

      I’ve always had the hardest time differentiating between the 767 and A330. I’ve now learned from other commenters about the rise of the A330’s windows.

      But for me the identifying characteristic has always been the bulbousness of the area where the wings join the fuselage.

    2. Chris S. Guest

      This was not supposed to be a reply to that comment. Ugh.

  30. JB Guest

    The A330 and A350 also have different nose shapes, which helps in telling them apart. The A330 is a bit more chubby looking, while the A350 nose has a more pointed and sharp design lines, and the nose tip is closer to the ground than the A330.

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AT Guest

for me hardest always used to be the different 767 variants, especially given the different door options. Also three other subtler distinctions for the 767-400 versus earlier models: -- raked wingtips (not always easy to spot unlike a wingtip) -- the windows are rounder (more like a 777s) whereas the -300/-200 have more square versions -- in the -400 version only there's a small break in the window line between doors 3 and 4. Ben, not all 767s have 3 doors, some like British Airways had four door layouts similar to the 767-400s.

1
Robert Guest

I love seeing the FedEx/UPS MD-11s fly over, love the tail engine look!

0
Mach2Boy Guest

Also, A350 vs. B787… A350 has six cockpit windows. B787 has four.

0
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