Whether you’re an aircraft spotter or mostly oblivious to plane models, you may be paying more attention to the type of aircraft you’re flying in, given the FAA’s recent clearing of the Boeing 737 Max to fly again. Aside from checking for potential cancellations, there are several other reasons why it can be useful to look up your plane type when you make your flight reservation.
For example, many of the smallest turboprop and regional jet aircraft might make you gate-check your normal carry-on bag to store in the cargo hold. If you have the option, you might want to choose a larger plane that typically has larger bins to store luggage.
Here’s how to figure out what type of plane you’re flying in—and a few other reasons why knowing your aircraft model ahead of time can make your next trip easier.
Check your flight reservation page
Almost every airline in the world lists the aircraft type on the reservations page of its website. Start by doing a search for your preferred flight to find out what type of plane you’ll be flying in. While every website is different, you will typically find aircraft information displayed near the flight details.
Still not sure? Look it up on ITA Matrix
If the plane type is still unclear, type in your origin, destination, and date of travel on the ITA Matrix, a flight search engine. Once you find your flight, click on the details arrow to the far right to find out exactly what type of plane you’re booked on.
Airlines sometimes have schedule changes, especially for flights booked more than a few months in advance, which could change the flight timing or the aircraft. This doesn’t happen often but is possible. A change of aircraft (or equipment, in airline lingo) is rare once the flight time approaches, unless there is a mechanical issue or weather delay that requires substituting a different plane. Last-minute changes require extra work for airport staff who must reorganize booked seats, which is why airlines try to minimize this occurrence.
Common planes for U.S. flights
The most common Western aircraft manufacturers are Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embraer. The major U.S. carriers typically do business with all of these manufacturers, although Alaska Airlines exclusively flew with Boeing until it merged with Virgin America, which had an all Airbus fleet. Alaska’s subsidiary Horizon Air uses many Bombardier planes.
Delta had an all Boeing fleet until it merged with Northwest and later placed large orders with Airbus.
There are other plane companies popular elsewhere: Tupolev, for example, is a Russian manufacturer and its planes are mostly found in former Soviet countries these days.
How are these type of planes different?
If you get on a plane and like to zone out for a few hours, then avoid older planes that are known for noise. The MD-88 series flown by Delta will cocoon you in engine noise if you sit in the back of the plane, so make sure to bring headphones.
If you enjoy spotting landmarks from the sky, keep in mind that most Airbus planes are known for having smaller windows than Boeing planes, although the Airbus A350 was built with larger ones. This makes it easier to see even if you are sitting in the aisle.
New aircraft types like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 are built using lighter composite materials, which allows them to burn less fuel. They’re also better for your skin: Used mostly on international flights, they feature upgraded air ventilation and circulation systems, allowing the cabin pressure to be akin to lower altitudes. This leaves you feeling less dehydrated and, hopefully, less jetlagged.
If you’re looking for a more spacious cabin, widebody planes with two aisles are obviously larger. Sometimes, they also come with newer entertainment systems because they are usually used for long-haul, international flights.
There are many variants to each airline’s planes, but these are important considerations to help guide you.
What should I do after I’ve booked my flight?
The biggest benefit of knowing your aircraft is that you can use it to pick the best possible seat. While aircraft manufacturers typically follow the same format for building the structure of specific plane types, there are plenty of things an airline can customize when buying a new plane. This can include things like a specific engine type, where they choose to place galleys and lavatories, and the number and configuration of seats. For example, a low-fare airline is more interested in packing in the seats than offering special amenities like onboard bars and lounges.
Some airlines even have different models of the same aircraft: Delta has several models of Boeing 767-300ER with different cabin configurations.
Try to search for the seat map on your own reservation page first to get an idea of the version of the plane you’re on, before heading to a seat map site.
Once you know the exact aircraft type, search for it on websites like SeatGuru or SeatMaestro. These websites outline an entire airline’s fleet, and for some planes, there may be several configurations. This can help you avoid seats that are close to the bathroom or ones with a misaligned window (when there is no window next to your window seat or an off-center window that you can’t look through).
These websites also do a great job of describing the types of seats (lie-flat versus recliner seats in business class, for example) and their relative amenities. Does it have built-in entertainment screens? Will the plane have wireless internet? You can also figure out which seats may have limited recline or no under-seat storage.
What do I need to know to become a plane spotter?
If you want to be the type of person who can look in the sky and know which model is flying, here are a few starter tips. The most obvious plane to spot is the massive Airbus A380, which has two complete levels of windows that stretch from nose to tail. The Boeing 747 has a second level, but it only stretches from the cockpit to above the wings, making it look like it has a bubble on the front section of the plane.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, both around the same size, have subtle nuances to help you distinguish them. The ends of the wings of the A350 have curly tips that point upward, while the Dreamliner’s wings angle slightly upward and, at the tip, are raked slightly to the back.
The Boeing 777 comes to a pinched, flat end at the very back beneath the tail, while the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 have conical end points beneath the tail. All Airbus A330 and A340 planes have winglets, while 777s never do. Some Boeing 767 planes have had them added for better fuel efficiency, too.
And if you truly want to practice your plane spotting, book a room at one of these airport hotels for a view that rivals those of a control tower.
This story was originally published on April 18, 2019, and was updated on January 15, 2020, to include current information.
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