How To Tell Airplanes Apart

There are many types of people who are passionate about miles and points. Some are just interested in saving money, while others love flying. There are many people who fly a lot but cannot tell the difference between an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747.
This post will show you how I identify planes in less than a second. There are many ways to do this, but I thought I'd share my method (and perhaps other hardcore avgeeks could chime in with some of theirs in the comments).

To keep things simple, I'll stick to the most widely used wide-body aircraft. However, if readers find this interesting they can request a post on narrow-body aircraft. Given the variety of aircraft available, this is probably not a difficult task. Let's begin with Boeing aircraft and then we will cover Airbus aircraft.

Boeing 747 characteristics

The Boeing 747 will continue to be my favorite airline. Although the Airbus A380 is now larger and more comfortable for passengers, the curves of the Boeing 747 are still a challenge. It is easy to recognize the 747 because it has both a full and partial lower deck.

The 747 passenger version is increasingly rare, but there are two main types: the 747-400 (and no, it's not the 747-800).

What is the difference between these two planes? The 747-400's winglets are traditional and stick up. The 747-400, on the other hand, has a smaller upper deck. There are seven windows each side of the upper deck exit row.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-400

For comparison, the 747-8s wingstips gradually increase in height, and the upper deck has 15 windows on either side of the exit row.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8

The rear engines of the 747-8s are similar to the 787's, but have a zig-zag design. I'll explain this below.

Boeing 767 characteristics

It is not unreasonable to imagine that a 767 or 777 looks the same from a distance. This is a mistake I make sometimes. It's particularly tricky because there are the 767-3000 and 767-4000, which are roughly equal to the 777-220 and 777-3 respectively in terms of their dimensions.

It is difficult to identify the 767 because so many airlines have modified it. Some airlines have wingslets on the 767 while others do not. Some airlines have doors on both sides of the 767-300 while others have three.

Let me simplify this: The base of each wing has two sets two wheels. The plane has a total of 10 wheels (including the nose and tail wheels) on each side. The 777 also has three sets each of two wheels at each wing's base, making a total of six wheels. This may sound trivial, but it is a great way to distinguish the planes.

Boliviana de Aviacion Boeing 767-300

How do you distinguish between the 767 300 and 767 400? The 767-303 has only three sets of doors per side, and sometimes only two. The 767-406 has four sets.

Delta Boeing 767-400

Boeing 777 characteristics

Three identifying characteristics of the Boeing 777 are: two large engines, no wingslets and 14 wheels. Two in the front and six at the back, each with three rows of tires.

How can you tell the difference in a Boeing 777-220 and a Boeing 777-3?

The Boeing 777-200 only has four doors per side (one at the front, one at the wing's wing and one at the back).

American Boeing 777-2200

The 777-300 also has five doors: one at the front, one in front and one behind the wing. One is a bit further back.

American Boeing 777-3300

Boeing 787 characteristics

The zig-zag cutouts at the engine's back are the best way to identify the 787. The wings are unique in their shape. The wings are quite high, even though there aren't any abrupt winglets.

Ethiopian Boeing 787-8

How can you tell the difference between the 787-10, 787-9, or 787-8? I am able to see it easily. However, it can be difficult for others because all versions have the same four exits, the same wings, and the same number wheels.

Only the length of the planes differs between them. The 787-8 measures 186 feet in length, while the 787-9 measures 206 feet and the 787-10 measures 224 feet. This is a significant difference as the longest version of the plane is more than 20% longer than its shorter counterpart.

A 787-8 I believe is easy to identify, as it appears small from the outside. I usually look at the number windows between the first set of doors and the second. It is a 787-8 if there are 10 windows or less on either side (including those that are not blacked out).

United Boeing 787-8

If there are more windows than 10, but less than 15, on either side of the doors, it is the 787-9.

United Boeing 787-9

If more than 15 windows are between each set of doors, it is the 787-10.

United Boeing 787-10

Airbus A330 characteristics

It is difficult to identify the A330 because there are two versions of this plane. First, there is the A330/200/300, which was the original version, and then there is the A330/800/900neo which is the latest version. The A330-900neo might look more like the A350-900 or A330-300 to some people.

Let's begin with the A330/300. The plane has a very proportional appearance. It can be easily identified by its two engines and traditional winglets. It is easy to distinguish it from other twin-engine wide bodies. The plane also has four doors to each side.

Delta Airbus A330-200

The A330-800/900neo shares a similar body design, but the winglets differ. The A330-200/300 wings are narrow and point straight up. However, the A330-880/900neo wingslets are more narrow and curve slightly.

Corsair Airbus A330-900neo

Although the A330neo is similar to the A350, there are significant differences in their wingtip designs. I will be covering the A350 below. Please let me know if you have any other ways to distinguish the planes.

Airbus A340 characteristics

The A340 is a single-deck plane with four engines. It's the only non-double-decker aircraft that has four engines. How can you tell the difference between A340-200/300, A340-600 and A340-399? Truth be told, there aren't many of these planes anymore so you won't have to use them in every situation. But still

The engines of the A340-200/300 are small and unwieldy. The aircraft also has only four doors per side.

SWISS Airbus A340-3300

The A340-600, on the other hand, is a magnificent work of art. It is so long and skinny, with appropriately-sized engines. Five doors are located on each side. The A340-600 is my favorite plane, after the 747.

Lufthansa Airbus A340 - 600

Airbus A350 characteristics

Two main characteristics of the Airbus A350 are its sleek design, especially near the nose and the Batman-looking cockpit windows, and its steep winglets (theyre not as gradual as the 787).

Air France Airbus A350 - 900

How can you tell the difference between A350-900 & A350-1000? There are many differences.

One, the A350-900 is equipped with 10 wheels, while A350-1000 comes with 14 wheels. This is due to the six-wheel base of each wing (three rows of 2) rather than the four-wheeled (two rows of 2) configuration.

The A350-1000 is the stretched version the A350-900. Another way to determine the difference is by counting the windows between the doors 1 and 2. Between the two sets of doors, there are approximately 15 windows on either side of the A350-900.

Philippine Airlines Airbus A350-900

The A350-1000 also has more than 20 windows between the first and the second sets of doors.

Cathay Pacific Airbus A350-1000

Airbus A380 characteristics

Given its two decks, I don't think anyone would have any trouble identifying the whale-jet.

Emirates Airbus A380

Bottom line

It is not easy to spot the differences between planes. It is, however, a favourite pastime for many avgeeks. If you are interested in learning more, the following guide will help you identify planes.

There are many other differences. I think it is more sensible to highlight the most obvious than to go into great detail about each plane.

For fellow geeks, I'd love to know how you can tell the difference between planes!