Types of Planes: The Three Types of Aircraft Used by the Major Airlines
Airlines across the globe tend to employ the same few types of planes in their commercial fleets. Most of these aircraft come from American aerospace company Boeing. Travelers don't usually take much note of the type of aircraft they choose when purchasing a flight, but learning about your prospective plane before boarding (or even committing to) the flight can tell you a lot about how that flight may go – how big is the aircraft? How many classes does it allot for? How many rows of seats are we talking? How many bathrooms?
If you're flying with a major airline, chances are you'll travel aboard a Boeing 747, 777 or 737.
The Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" tops the list of most popular aircraft, both for cargo and commercial flights. Boeing's 747-400 model boasts widespread use among commercial airlines worldwide, including Delta Air Lines, United Continental and British Airways (the latter being the world's largest operator of the Boeing 747). The 747-400 jet sports a wide-set body and distinctive upper deck shape, giving the plane a sort of "humpback" look.
The 747-400 is one of the fastest commercial jetliners in existence, not to mention the most reliable. Still, after more than a decade of operation for these models, major airlines began retiring their Boeing 747s in late 2017. Delta and United hosted dedicated farewell tours for their 747s, marking the four-engine jet's final passenger trips with U.S. airlines. Some non-American airlines still operate Boeing 747-400 aircraft, but not for much longer – Qantas, for example, is slated to retire its ageing jets by 2021.
Meanwhile, cargo carriers still seek out and fly Boeing 747 aircraft, focusing particularly on used planes retired by major airlines. Boeing will continue to manufacture its 747 aircraft as a newer model – the Boeing 747-8, which launched in 2005 and first hit the skies in 2010 – into the 2020s, and has sold out of its factory-fresh 747 models through 2021. United Parcel Service negotiated a freighter order in mid-2016 that would keep the 747-8 assembly line in operation for at least that long. Moreover, the Boeing 747-8 is Air Force One's preferred aircraft.
The Boeing 747-8 outsizes the 747-400 slightly, featuring 410 seats across three classes. The plane is 250 feet, 2 inches in length; its wingspan reaches 224 feet, 5 inches; and it's 63 feet, 6 inches tall. A 747-8 can travel the length of three FIFA soccer fields (that's 360 yards total) in just one second.
Companies currently flying 747-8 aircraft include:
- Air China
- Atlas Air
- Cathay Pacific Airways
- Korean Air
- Nippon Cargo Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Silk Way Airlines
History of the 747
Though commercial passenger airlines are largely phasing out their Boeing 747s, the aircraft marked a pivotal point in commercial transport, premiering as the largest civilian airplane in the world in the late 1960s. Airfare reductions at the time sparked a surge in air passenger traffic, calling for larger aircraft to compensate for newly crowded skies. Thus the Boeing 747 was born, designed to hold more passengers and luggage than any airplane model in existence.
The 747 has been designed and redesigned through the decades to accommodate for human passengers and cargo alike, with some aircraft offering a passenger/freighter combined model. Boeing produced the 747-100, 200, 300 and 400 in succession, each designed to carry more passengers than the previous model. The Boeing 747-400 rolled out in 1988 and was produced as a freighter, combination freighter and passenger aircraft. It also featured a special domestic version and, for a limited time, a militarized freighter model for the U.S. Air Force's Airborne Laser program.
In June 2014, Boeing delivered its 1,500th 747 plane to Lufthansa, an airline based in Frankfurt, Germany. This marked a milestone for aircraft production, as the 747 became the first-ever wide-body airplane to cross the 1,500 threshold.
Another of the most popular types of aircraft is the Boeing 777. This model sports an even larger capacity than most 747 models, carrying between 300 and 550 passengers across three class options. The 777's passenger capacity, combined with its large range and impressive fuel efficiency, makes this model a particularly economical option for airline companies taking on frequent international flights.
This Boeing model boasts an entirely digital design, with computer-aided, 3-D design tools allowing the company's engineers to produce one of the most aerodynamically advanced and structurally efficient aircraft on the market, with impeccable fuel economy to boot. It was the world's first commercial aircraft designed entirely by computer. You can spot a 777 from its massive engines, low-hanging landing gear and blade-shaped tail cone, featuring a narrow tailfin. The 777 is currently one of the best-selling long haul commercial vehicles.
The Boeing 777 changed long-distance passenger travel for good. Looking at the trip from London, England to Sydney, Australia, for example, a trip that required one stop and 23 hours of flying on a 747-400 now takes 19.5 hours of nonstop flight on a 777-200LR. In other words, this aircraft opened the possibility of connecting essentially any two cities in the world with a single nonstop flight. In fact, the 777 set a new world record for nonstop distance traveled by a commercial airplane when it traveled eastbound from Hong Kong to London on Nov. 10, 2005 – that's 11,664 nautical miles in a flight of 22 hours and 42 minutes.
Boeing currently manufactures four models of the 777:
- 777-300 ER: This aircraft carries 396 passengers across two classes and sports a range of 7,370 nautical miles.
- 777-200LR: This model carries fewer passengers – 317 – but features a longer range of 8,555 nautical miles.
- 777-200ER: The 200ER carries 313 passengers in two classes and has a range of 7,065 nautical miles.
- 777F: This cargo model carries nearly 225,000 pounds, with a range of nearly 5,000 nautical miles.
Boeing is now in the process of manufacturing the Boeing 777X, which will be the largest, most fuel-efficient twin-engine jet in the world. Assembly for this model is still in the works. In the meantime, Boeing already enjoys 68 commercial airline partners flying its 777 models.
When Boeing first released its 737 model, the company intended the aircraft for short- to medium-range flight distances. However, it eventually increased the model's capacity to hold 85 to 215 passengers. Now, Boeing has produced four series of 737 jets: the 737-600, 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900ER, and a fifth series of Boeing 737 MAX 9 is upcoming. The 737 has grown to become the all-time most popular jet aircraft.
The 737's winglet technology provides the jet with increased range, payload and takeoff performance, and reduces noise, engine maintenance costs and fuel consumption. Improvements to the jet's engine performance lowered fuel consumption by approximately 1 percent. Like the 777, the Boeing 737 was completely digitally designed. Designing the jet using 3-D digital design and manufacturing technology worked to create better structural efficiency, higher-quality assembly and improved servicing and maintenance.
Passengers on Boeing 737 jets can expect a high-end experience as well, with the cabin featuring:
- Color LED lighting
- Passenger service units
- Touch-screen attendant panels
- Bright colors and decor
- Window reveals
- Sculpted sidewalls
- Pivot bins
The "Next-Generation" family of the Boeing 737 comes with improved range flexibility, which allows these jets to access new markets. From London, for example, the Boeing 737-900ER can reach Cairo or Dakar. The 737-700 can fly as far as Lagos or Novosibirsk, and the 737-800 can extend its range to destinations including Dubai and Halifax.
Moreover, the Next-Generation 737 proves both more efficient than its predecessors and more environmentally progressive. The jet family creates a low noise impact (with the 737-700 being the quietest of the aircraft). It also boasts lower emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, smoke and nitrogen oxides. In fact, the Next-Generation 737 jets feature a 9 to 14 percent reduction in carbon emissions and fuel consumption per seat.
According to Boeing's website, 118 companies currently fly airplanes from the Next-Generation Boeing 737 family.
The Boeing 737 MAX family will aim to provide passengers with comfortable flying experiences and the most direct possible routes to their destinations. It's already the fastest-selling airplane in company history, having supplied nearly 4,700 aircraft to more than 100 buyers across the planet.
Other Types of Aircraft
Boeing dominates the market as far as common aircraft go, with the company's 787 (also called the Dreamliner), 757, 767, 727 and 707 models proving some of the most popular among commercial airlines. Other types of planes also make the list, however, from commercial aircraft manufacturer Airbus . These include the Airbus A320 family and the Airbus A380.
The Airbus A320 family portfolio includes the A318, A319neo, A320neo and A321neo. Airbus claims its A320 jetliner family to be the most successful and versatile of its kind in the world, seating between 100 and 240 passengers. Airbus estimates that an A320 takes off or lands every 1.6 seconds, and these aircraft operate on every continent. Moreover, it's the longest-range single-aisle aircraft on the market.
Starting in 2020, aircraft in the A320 family will feature Airspace technology. Cabins in Airspace technology planes will feature elegant lighting, relatively wide seats, large overhead storage bins (which can hold up to eight bags, whereas typical bins hold five) and redesigned window bezels that offer more window space and less obstructed views.
The Airbus A380, on the other hand, has carried more than 190 million passengers on more than 500,000 flights all over the world. Airbus claims this model is the largest and most spacious passenger aircraft, featuring a double-deck, wide body design. Airlines flying the Airbus A380 include:
- Singapore Airlines
- Air France
- Korean Air
- China Southern Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Thai Airways International (THAI)
- British Airways
- Asiana Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Etihad Airways
- Hi Fly