The Two Most-Spotted Aircraft: A320 vs B737
Airbus and Boeing are the world’s largest aircraft manufactures that dominate 99% of global large plane orders. Therefore their aircraft are often in comparison—typically by category, a wide-body aircraft and a narrow-body aircraft. Our previous infographics compared Airbus 380 and Boeing 747, as well as Boeing’s two wide-body airliners, Boeing 747 and Boeing 777. Today’s infographic displays the similarity and difference between narrow-body aircraft of the two airline manufacturing giants: A320 vs B737.
A320 and B737 are both narrow-body short-haul airliners. Some people dislike flying on these small planes—they are shaky, turbulent, bumpy, and simply suffocating. Passengers may not find enough space in the overhead compartment if it is a full flight. They may have to queue up long for the limited number of lavatories.
Not only passengers but also cabin crew often don’t prefer small planes (including myself!). Since there is only one narrow aisle, service can get discontinued many times whenever passengers wish to go to the lavatory. When that happens on a full flight, crew have to draw the trolley back to the gally to let them reach the lavatory. Why don’t crew let you squeeze through the narrow gap between the seat and the trolley? It would be against the safety standards of in-flight service manuals! And what is worse, these are for short-haul flights—flights can be sometimes as short as 30 minutes. If it is a full-service carrier, service can be hectic and even incomplete.
Having said that, both A320 and B737 are the most popular aircraft among airlines. They are the highest-selling commercial aircraft. As of 2022, Airbus has produced 10,285 A320s, while Boeing has delivered 10,963 B737s. So, how do they compare: A320 vs B737?
B737 Debuted Earlier | 1967
The Boeing 737 took to the sky more than half a century ago, in 1967. Nicknamed Baby Boeing, the aircraft was to supplement to regional routes too small and thin for Boeing’s larger aircraft, Boeing 727. In 1968, the Boeing 737 went into airline service with Lufthansa. At the time of its debut, its major competitors were DC-9 by the Douglas Aircraft Company and BAC One-Eleven by British Aircraft Corporation. The first generation of the Boeing 737 that consists of 737-100 and 737-200 is called “Original” in the family. The capacity of the Original was 124 for 737-100 and 136 for 737-200. And its range was 2,850 km for 737-100 and 4,800 km for 737-200.
A decade and a half years later in 1984, the second generation Boeing 737 “Classic” took to the sky—737-300, 737-400, and 737-500. The Classic introduced higher-bypass turbofan engines to improve fuel efficiency. US Airways was the first airline to fly the 737 Classic in 1984. In addition to the better fuel economy, the Classic accommodated customers’ needs by developing several variants with a different capacity and range. The Classic series had a capacity up to 188 and a range up to 4,398 km. And at around this period of the 1980s, the fierce competition of A320 vs B737 kicked off.
Now let’s turn back the clock to the late 1960s when Airbus began as a consortium.
Foundation of Airbus to Break the US Duopoly | 1970s
Around the time when Boeing sent B737 to the sky, American companies dominated the aviation manufacturing industry. Especially, Boeing and Douglas were the two giants in the industry, holding a huge share in the market. To break this duopoly, European aircraft manufactures went into collaboration in the late 1960s—the beginning of “Airbus.” Government initiative between France, West Germany, and the UK officially established Airbus Industrie as Groupement d’Intérêt Économique or Economic Interest Group in 1970.
The initiative’s first successful project was Airbus 300, launched in 1972. Following this wide-body airliner, Airbus started its second wide-body project, Airbus 310. They both were wide-body aircraft whose capacity was similar to that of Boeing 767. By the late 1970s, Airbus had become an emerging competitor to the American giants, taking orders even from American airlines.
In 1977, European aviation manufacturers set up another program: Joint European Transport (JET). Around that time, airlines were looking for replacements for the retiring DC-9, BAC One-Eleven, and the 737 Original. Consequently, this joint program, which would later redesign itself as A320, was to develop the 125-180 seaters replacement.
A320 Saw the Light of Day | 1987
The Airbus 320 first flew in 1987 and went into airline service the following year with Air France. While the initial 737 Classic model adopted old mechanical cockpits arrangements, the Airbus 320 introduced glass cockpit, which was cutting-edge in those days. Airbus 320 was also the world’s first airliner to adopt digital fly-by-wire flight control system that uses an electronic interface to control aircraft performance. The A320 can carry up to 195 passengers, with a range of 6,112 km.
In later years, the A320 family both extended and shrank its capacity and range to have four members in the family: A321, A320, A319, and A318. A321 took to the sky in 1994 with Lufthansa, with a capacity of 236 and a range of 5,926 km. Then there is A319 whose debut was in 1996 with Swissair. It can carry 160 passengers with a range of 6,945 km. Finally, A318 joined the family in 2003 with Frontier Airlines, carrying 136 passengers with a range of 5,741 km.
B737 Next Generation as a Response | 1997
By the early 1990s, Douglas was no longer in the competition. In fact, Boeing merged Douglas in 1997. Now Airbus was the biggest competitor for Boeing. Furthermore, the emergence of the Airbus 320 family in the late 1980s was a real threat for Boeing as the fleet adopted the cutting-edge technology. It was time for Boeing to upgrade the 737 Classic—the solution was Boeing 737 Next Generation or 737NG.
This third-generation Boeing 737 flew first in 1997. Later the same year, Southwest Airlines put the first 737NG into service as the launch customer.
Upgrading the 737 Classic, the 737NG deployed improved engines and a glass cockpit. The 737NG consists of four variants: 737-600, 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900. The seating capacity is between 149 and 220 with a range between 5,436 km and 5,991 km, much similar to the Airbus family.
A320neo Followed B737NG | 2014
In 2010, Airbus launched A320neo program as an improved model of A320. Neo here, by the way, stands for “new engine option.” In addition to new engines, LEAP and GTF, the innovation in A320neo included Airbus Sharklet, a winglet with a smooth curve unlike the previous sharp-angle winglets. The Sharklet cuts fuel burn up to 4%, according to Airbus. By the 2011 November Dubai Airshow, it received 1,420 orders and commitments, after which Airbus started production of A320neo.
The first flight of the A320neo was in 2014. Two years later, it entered service with Lufthansa. After one year of operation, the airline confirmed the 20% fuel burn cut as advertised by Airbus. The airline also welcomed A320neo for its significant noise and CO2 emissions reduction. The seating capacity is up to 244 with a range of up to 7,400 km.
The A320neo is a huge success for Airbus. As of late 2021, Airbus has received more than 8,600 orders for A320neo. As of March 2022, the total order number for A320 family mounted to 16,846, which outpaced others, making it the best-selling single aisle fleet in the world.
The Worrisome B737 Max | 2016
In March 2022, hearing about the tragedy of China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735, many people would have initially speculated on if it was a B737 Max again. After all, it was not B737 Max but was B737NG, but two fatal accidents related to the B737 Max were enough to unintentionally damage its reputation.
Back in 2010 when Airbus launched A320neo program, Boeing was groping for the successor of the B737NG that would also have the newly-debuted B787 Dreamliner features. In 2011, the company decided to re-engine 737s with a 15% more fuel efficient engine, LEAP. This engine, however, was much larger than the previous engines and therefore needed to be placed forward and higher up. The relocation caused an upward pitching for the aircraft. Simply put, the 737 Max has a tendency to pull the nose up during certain maneuvers. To counter this tendency, engineers equipped the 737 Max with Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). MCAS helps the aircraft stabilize the flight behavior. Notoriously, Boeing asked the Federal Aviation Administration to remove information about MCAS from flight manuals when getting approval. FAA agreed. As a result, pilots remained unaware of this system.
With MCAS kept from pilots, the B737 Max made its first flight in 2016, followed by the first service flight by Malindo Air the next year. B737 Max has several variants with seating capacity up to 230 and a range up to 7,130 km. By 2018, Boeing received more than 5,000 orders. The B737 Max seemingly was successful until fatal accidents happened in 2018 and 2019.
The devastating tragedies took the lives of 189 people on Lion Air Flight 610 on 29th October 2018 and the lives of 157 people on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on 10th March 2019. The spate of fatal accidents on the same model in a 5-month period and similarities between them caused grounding of the B737 Max. Boeing received more than 1,000 cancellations of the aircraft in following years.
Is A320 Safer than B737?
The recent fatal accidents of the Boeing 737 Max has shed reputation of the model for safety. Moreover, A320neo has not had any fatal accident as of 2022 March. However, both Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 are extremely safe aircraft. A Boeing report Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents revealed accident rates by airplane type. The hull-loss with fatalities accident rate and hull-loss accident rates per million departures are:
- 737-100/-200: 0.91, 1.80, respectively;
- 737-300/-400/-500: 0.25, 0.76, respectively;
- 737-600/-700/-800/-900: 0.09, 0.19, respectively;
- A320/321/319/318: 0.09, 0.19, respectively.
Now the accident rates for 737 Original and Classic are higher than the recent models. However, taking technological development into account, they are not particularly unsafe as other models in the same generation have the similar accident rates. For example, DC-9 has a hull-loss with fatalities rate of 0.78 and a hull-loss accident rate of 1.47.
The report did not have data for the newest models 737 Max and A320neo as these models had not reached 1 million departures. However, it is unlikely that these models are particularly unsafe.
Summing up: A320 vs B737
The two highest-selling aircraft, Airbus 320 and Boeing 737, are narrow-body short-haul aircraft. Their typical seating capacity is between 150 to 200, with a range of up to 7,000 km. The two companies have competed in the narrow-body aircraft market since around 1980s.
Although the Boeing 737 made her sky debut earlier than the Airbus 320, the Airbus 320 has surpassed the Boeing 737 in order numbers. Today, the Airbus 320 is the world’s highest-selling single-aisle aircraft.
The recent fatal accidents have unfortunately cast a doubt on the safety of the newest model of 737, Boeing 737 Max. However, historical accident rates show that both Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 are extremely safe aircraft. Having said that, mistrust and technological concerns over Boeing 737 Max caused more than 1,000 cancellations of the aircraft. As of 2022 March, Airbus 320neo holds 60% market share while 737 Max share falls below 40%.