How to Figure out What Type of Plane You’re Flying In

The type of plane you fly on can affect everything from how much luggage space you’ll have to how you can pick the best seat.

Front view of aircraft parked a gate

Looking up your aircraft model before your flight can help you travel smarter.

Photo by Jaruek Chairak/Shutterstock

Whether you’re an aircraft spotter or simply wondering what the seat layout of your next flight will be, being knowledgeable about airplane models can be super helpful. If there’s anything general aviation news has taught us (like the FAA’s 2020 decision to clear the Boeing 737 Max to fly again), it’s that there are several reasons why it can be useful to know your plane type when you make your flight reservation that go beyond creature comforts.

For example, many of the smallest turboprop and regional jet aircraft (or any passenger aircraft with a narrow body, sometimes even midsize planes) might make you gate-check your normal, TSA-approved carry-on bags to store in the cargo hold. So, if there’s another aircraft option available, you might want to choose a larger commercial jet that will have larger bins to store luggage.

Here’s how to figure out what type of plane you’ll be flying in—and a few other reasons why knowing your aircraft model ahead of time can make your next trip easier.

Common types of airplanes for U.S. flights

You’ll often hear the phrase “jumbo jet” or “queen of the skies” tossed around when people talk about booking travel. This refers to massive passenger jets that make cross-ocean journeys. According to the Museum of Flight, the first jumbo jet was the Boeing 747, which was introduced in 1970 and flew more than 350 people between New York City and London. This (at-the-time) new class of Boeing planes allowed airlines to carry more people while charging less for tickets, ushering in a new era of air travel. In February 2023, Boeing officially built its last 747, marking an end to one of the industry’s most revolutionary planes.

The most common Western aircraft that passengers will fly on are those created by Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embraer. Unlike military aircraft, which are designed for high speeds and ultra-maneuverability in mind, passenger jets are crafted with (at least some) comfort in mind and to take on long-range journeys at slower speeds that are easier on the body. Notably, Alaska Airlines exclusively flew with Boeing aircraft until it merged with Virgin America in 2016, which had an all-Airbus fleet. Alaska’s subsidiary Horizon Air mainly uses Bombardier planes. Delta had an all-Boeing fleet until it merged with Northwest in 2008 and began placing large orders with Airbus.

A white passenger airplane in the sky

The biggest benefit of knowing your aircraft is that you can use it to pick the best possible seat.

Photo by muratart/Shutterstock

How are these types of planes different?

If you’re the type of person who likes to get on a plane and zone out for a few hours, then avoid older planes, which are often noisier. 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 portholes. This makes it easier to see even if you are sitting on the aisle.

New aircraft types like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 are built using lighter composite materials, which allow them to burn less fuel. They’re also better for your skin: Used mostly on international flights, these models feature upgraded air ventilation and circulation systems that help hold the cabin pressure to numbers closer to what you might find on the ground. This can make passengers feel less dehydrated and, hopefully, less jet-lagged.

If you’re looking for a more spacious cabin, wide-body aircraft with two aisles are obviously larger. Sometimes, they also come with newer entertainment systems and are usually used for long-haul, international flights.

Are some planes better than others?

It depends on what exactly you’re looking for—if you want more legroom or extra luggage storage space, a wide-body plane like the Being 787 Dreamliner would be a good option. If you must have an entertainment system to stay sane on a long-haul flight, a newer aircraft like an Airbus A220 might fit the bill.

Another thing to keep in mind: If you’re traveling to a remote area, it’s likely you’ll kick off your journey in a larger, long-haul aircraft and finish it in a smaller transport aircraft or sometimes even a single-engine plane, depending on the destination. Be prepared to gate-check your larger carry-on luggage just in case.

How to know what type of airplane you’ll be flying on

Nearly every airline in the world lists the type of aircraft that flights will be using on the reservations page of its website—you’ll typically find plane information displayed near the flight details. Start by doing a search for your preferred flight to find out what type of plane you’ll be flying in.

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 time a flight takes off or the type of aircraft used. A day-of change of aircraft (or equipment, in airline lingo) is rare, unless there is a mechanical issue or weather delay that requires substituting a different plane.

An airplane taxiing to a gate.

Today, the most common Western aircraft manufacturers are Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embraer.

Photo by Romeo Pj/Shutterstock

What should I do after I’ve booked my flight?

One of the biggest benefits 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 items an airline can customize when buying a new plane. This can include things like engine types, the placement of galleys and lavatories, and the number and configuration of seats. For example, a low-fare airline may be more interested in packing in as many seats as possible 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 planes 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 know the make and model of an airplane with just a cursory glance, 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 under 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 in April 2019 and was updated on May 26, 2023, to include current information.

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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