In this article I’m going to compare the two largest aircraft makers Boeing vs Airbus.
All great stories revolve around a conflict.
Just look at our day-to-day lives: Gearheads debate which is the best muscle car, shutterbugs compare Nikon to Canon, and everyone has an opinion on iPhone vs. Android or Pepsi vs. Coke.
So, it’s no surprise that airplane nuts debate airplane brands. The small stuff gets a lot of attention (who hasn’t wondered which is better, Cessna or Piper?), but the big stuff always steals the show.
From the pilots at the controls to the passengers in 12B and 12C, everyone likes to talk about Boeing and Airbus.
Fundamental Design Differences
If there’s one thing that differentiates all Boeing and Airbus products, it’s the design ethos that goes into the products. It’s impossible not to generalize here, but the basic concept is simple.
Boeing has always taken a traditional approach to the aircraft’s flight controls. The pilot moves the controls, which move the flight control surfaces.
Autopilots and automation are added to the system to reduce the pilot’s workload. In the end, the pilot can always override the automation.
Modern Airbuses have a different approach to flight control systems. The pilot moves the controls, telling the computer and automated systems what they want to do.
The computer then moves the flight control surfaces based on its programming. That programming includes limits on how much the plane can roll or pitch at a given phase of flight.
In a Boeing, a pilot can pitch the plane up into a stall.
Warnings, like the stick shaker, pusher, and other safety systems, will alert the pilot to the impending stall. This is the way Boeing has built planes since the 1920s.
Technology has changed and been added, but safety comes down to pilot training and their knowledge of the plane and its systems.
In a modern Airbus, on the other hand, the pilot can command the same pitch-up to enter a stall, but the plane will not exceed its normal flight envelope. It will pitch to its max and add power for a normal climb.
This is “fly-by-wire” technology in its most extreme form. Not only does the pilot not directly control the flight controls, there is no overriding the safe pre-programmed profiles of the plane.
There is no “seat-of-your-pants” flying in an Airbus because the controls provide no feedback to the pilot. Even the thrust levers are fully automated, with only a few pre-set positions.
Airbus is a much newer company, formed by a multi-national conglomerate of European manufacturers in the 1970s. Their first products were designed in the computer age, and so they have always embraced technology to improve aviation safety.
Is one way better than the other? Good question. We won’t settle that debate today, but it’s safe to say that Boeing and Airbus have different ways of designing airplanes.
As a side note, even newer Boeing designs have incorporated flight envelope protection software systems.
Business Differences: Boeing vs Airbus
These companies are also very different in the way they are structured and how they have come to be.
Boeing has been around since the dawn of aviation. The Boeing 247 was the first airliner capable of crossing the Rocky Mountains, making coast-to-coast air service a reality in the US. That was in 1933.
During the Second World War, Boeing churned out the now-famous B-17 and B-29 bombers.
The present-day Boeing company is the result of many mergers over the years. Most noticeably, the McDonnell Douglass/Boeing merger in 1997 meant the end of their biggest domestic competitor.
For years, Boeing represented the dominance of the US aerospace industry. The 707 was the first successful jet airliner credited with heralding the Jet Age.
The 747 is known as the Queen of the Skies as she was the first long-haul, wide-body “jumbo jet” ever conceived.
Boeing’s present structure is divided between commercial plane, defense, and space manufacturing. Their primary production facility is in Everett, Washington, but they also have a large plant in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Airbus began in 1969 when the French and German governments agreed to a consortium that could better compete with the American aerospace industry.
While there was a lot of innovation by several European manufacturers, the economies of scale were not in their favor. By joining forces and cooperating, these manufacturers could take on much bigger projects with higher production costs. From the outset, the goal was to compete globally based on technology.
Eventually, the company formed from French Aérospatiale, British Aerospace, German Deutsche Airbus, and Spanish CASA. The companies worked together to design and produce their first airliner, the A300.
The plane first flew in 1972 and successfully competed against other similar wide-body planes of the time, like the Lockheed L-1011.
Though the business structure changes every few years, today’s Airbus includes business units that can track their history back to:
- European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) Company
- German DASA (Daimler-Benz Aerospace, Dornier, Messerschmitt, and MTU)
- British Hawker Siddeley and Britsh Aerospace (BAC/BAE Systems)
- Bombardier C-series airliners (now the A220)
Airbus’s present business units include commercial aircraft, helicopters (formerly Eurocopter), defense, space, and security products.
Their primary facility is in Toulouse, France, with more in Hamburg, Germany, and Seville, Spain. More assembly lines are set up in Mobile, Alabama, and Tianjin, China.
Model Comparisons: Airbus vs. Boeing
Airbus and Boeing have worked to offer a full range of options for the airline industry.
They take advisement from the industry as to what is needed, but also look at what the other is making and try to make something better.
Year after year, it’s a game to see who will land on the winning formula and get more airline orders.
Airbus’s first plane, the A300, was to be a new, more efficient type of wide-body airliner. Its twin-engine design and lighter-weight airframe crushed competition like the tri-jet McDonnell Douglas DC-10/MD-11 and Lockheed L-1011.
It pushed Boeing to develop the B767 series, but before that went into service, Airbus could dominate this corner of the airline industry.
Narrow-Body Airliners: A320 vs B737
Both companies have a cash cow product with successful narrow-body, single-aisle airliners.
The Boeing 737 has been around since the -100 flew in 1984. The -200 was more successful, but engine upgrades over the years have seen continual improvement to the line.
The 737 Next Generation airliners were -600s or newer, with the -800 being the most popular. Many of the improvements to the NG designs were spurred by competition from Airbus’s A320. The latest versions are the 737MAX models, introduced in 2017.
Unfortunately, a series of crashes and incidents led to the MAX series being grounded by the FAA and other worldwide aviation authorities.
This threatened Boeing’s market dominance and gave Airbus an opportunity—Boeing effectively lost its ability to sell or produce 737s for over a year until a fix was found and certified.
The MAX was returned to service in 2020, but the fiasco damaged its credibility and allowed Airbus to surpass it as the world’s largest airplane manufacturer.
In total, for all variants of the 737, Boeing has delivered 11,431 airframes since 1967.
The A320 family (including the A318, A319, A320, and A321) was introduced in 1987 and built to compete with the successful B737. It was the first true fly-by-wire airliner and was a glass cockpit chocked full of technological innovation for the time.
It was upgraded with new engines in 2010 and called the A320neo. The A321 is a stretched version with more seating; the A318 and A319 are smaller variants.
When you count standing orders, the A320 surpassed the B737 to become the highest-selling airliner in history. As of 2023, 10,256 were in service with 340 operators. The A320 model enabled Airbus to compete with Boeing on a global scale.
Wide-Body: A330/340 vs. B767/777
The next big challenge for Airbus was to take a bite out of Boeing’s market share for larger, long-range planes with an update to their aging A300. The successful B767, and the new B777, were their targets.
The A330 and A340 families of planes were designed for the purpose. The A330 was a wide-body, medium to long-haul twin jet option.
The A340 was a quad-jet aimed at long-haul operators looking for something more economical than the B747. The A340 was not very successful, but the efficient and modern A330 was (and still is).
New Generation Wide-Body Airliners: A350 vs. B787
Boeing announced the 787 Dreamliner program in 2003, and Airbus followed suit with the A350 in 2004.
These twin jets were more or less updates on the now older A330 and B767 designs. New technologies meant it would be possible to make planes of similar sizes that were more efficient, cheaper to operate and emitted less greenhouse gasses on every flight.
Both are thoroughly modern airliners with extensive use of carbon fiber and composites in their airframes, and both designs have pushed the boundaries for what can efficiently be done with today’s manufacturing and engine technologies.
Jumbos: A380 vs. B747
In terms of size, the Boeing 747, the “Queen of the Skies,” dominated for decades.
Airbus took it head on first by making an even larger plane, the double-decker A380. Both planes were quad-jets designed for long-haul, high-volume flights where getting the cost per seat mile as low as possible was the goal.
However, the problem that faced both models, in the end, was that they required airlines to see a high long-term global demand for long-distance air travel.
The COVID pandemic and its lasting effects on global air travel may have been the final nail in their mutual coffin.
But it’s worth noting that new designs like the long-range variants of the A350 and B777 twin jets can fly the same routes (in some cases, even longer ones) for much lower costs.
For example, the A350-1000 can carry as many as 480 passengers up to 8,700 nautical miles.
Unfortunately, while successful in their own ways, both designs have since been retired by their manufacturers, but many planes are still in service worldwide.
Outlook for Boeing vs Airbus
In business terms, Airbus and Boeing operate as a duopoly—two firms that dominate an industry.
There are emerging players in the airliner market, but for the most part, these companies are decades away from being able to take any bite out of the Boeing/Airbus market share.
For decades, Boeing and Airbus have publically decried what they see as unfair competitive practices by their rival. Boeing is quick to point out that Airbus is subsidized by the governments that support it, allowing them to undercut Boeing’s prices to seize market share.
Airbus, for their part, argues that Boeing has an unfair lock on US contracts, both with the US airlines and the US government.
Boeing vs Airbus: What’s Next?
Many folks are wondering what comes next, now that the jumbo models have been retired. The most likely target will be what some call the “New Midsized Airplane,” a replacement for the A330 and B767 fleets. Airbus has announced their A330neo while Boeing has yet to release their plans.
In the end, Boeing and Airbus are more alike than different. They both have worldwide supplier and manufacturing networks. Many Airbuses are built in the US at their Mobile, Alabama plant.
Boeing and Airbus continue to compete for a great share of the airliner market, attempting to undercut each other’s pricing and get as many airplanes on order as possible.
Every signed contract is a win; these multi-billion dollar deals always make headlines. So both companies fight tooth and nail to get their products out there.
So where do you fall in the Boeing vs Airbus debate?
- About the Author
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.