Flying has become so common that for many people it feels as normal as walking around their neighbourhood. Some frequent fliers even know the airplane model they are travelling in. And some of the most seasoned travellers even know which are the best seats on each plane, the carry-on capacity, where the emergency exits are located, the location of the restrooms and other characteristics that change from one aircraft to another, depending on the model. But, do we know what the name of each aircraft model means?
The letters and numbers that designate each aircraft model provide information we can use to travel better, and according to our personal preferences.
Since the dawn of industrial aeronautics, the model names were created according to a simple logic. In general, they started with a common name with the number increasing as the model evolved or different versions were created.
The Wright brothers made their first flights in Flyer I (a.k.a. Kitty Hawk), and then produced Flyer II and Flyer III.
Juan de la Cierva, who invented the autogyro, named his first model Cierva C-1. It never made it off the ground, but the C-3 did. That was the beginning of an aircraft saga that ended with the C-40.
In the commercial aircraft field, we have the example of the Douglas Aircraft Company, one of the historic aircraft manufacturers which, in 1933, released its first model, the revolutionary DC-1. The letters DC come from “Douglass Commercial”. Next came the DC-2 and the bestselling DC-3… and so on through the DC-9.
The majority of aircraft manufacturers have followed this method up to the present day.
If we fly today, it is probably in a plane made by one of the world’s two major manufacturers. Boeing models always start with a 7, while Airbus models always start with a 3. Let’s find out why.
In 1916 Boeing began as Pacific Aero Products mainly manufacturing hydroplanes, the first of which was named B-1 (1919). Obviously the “B” came from Boeing with the first model being “1”. Later the company evolved and diversified, manufacturing aircraft, ships, rockets and other military material, especially until the end of World War II. During that time, they focused on building bombers, hitting a high of 300 per month at their peak.
After the war it no longer made sense to manufacture such high volumes of military material, so the company was forced to radically restructure and focus mainly on manufacturing commercial aircraft.
In the 1950’s the competition introduced the de Havilland DH.106 Comet, the first commercial passenger plane with jet engines. Boeing saw a clear opportunity in this market segment and, in 1952, presented its program to develop civil jet planes. To name this aircraft line, they referred to their list. After the war, and to improve internal organization, Boeing established different product series and labelled them with hundreds. They were as follows:
- Series 100: Helicopters
- Series 200: Pre-WWII planes
- Series 300: Civil propeller planes
- Series 400: Military propeller planes
- Series 500: Turbines, engines
- Series 600: Missiles and rockets
- Series 700: Commercial jet planes
- Series 900: Experimental models
At that time, products numbered by hundreds went up to 600, which meant 700’s would be used to designate this new type of aircraft.
The new plane should have been called the B701, but the marketing department deemed that unattractive for such an important project. They proposed B707, the name it entered into service with in October 1958, with the first flight between New York and Paris operated by PanAm. Production continued until 1978.
There was a smaller version of the 707-020 that ended up as the B720, designed to be a shorter, lighter, higher performing plane than its big brother. The name was an anomaly.
The next model on the name scale was, however, the B717. It is known as Boeing’s smallest plane, which came from the McDonnel Douglas takeover and was originally called the MD-95 (which evolved from the DC-9). It was produced from 1999 to 2005 until all orders were completed.
From then on, Boeing systematically continued the B7x7 designation for new families of aircraft. Only the tens would change depending on the order in which the plane was developed, independent of its size.
The B727 was next on the list. This was medium-size, narrow-body trijet with capacity for 180 passengers. It entered service in 1964 and over 1800 units were manufactured by the end of production in 1984.
The B727 was the first complete family consisting of different versions of the same model, where the designation included a series of alphanumeric characters indicating the aircraft’s purpose as follows:
- B727-100: First model in the 727 family.
- B727-100C: Convertible passenger cargo version.
- B727-100QC: Quick Change convertible passenger cargo version.
- B727-100QF: Cargo version for UPS and business.
- B727-200: Stretched version, 6.1 metres longer than the B727-100.
- B727-200ADV: “Advanced” version with longer range and new avionics.
- B727-200WL: Winglet version.
- B727-200RE: Re-engined version.
- B727-200F: Freight-only version.
The B737 was the next model on the list; it entered service in February of 1968. Boeing has continuously manufactured it since 1967 as the aircraft selling the most units in the history of aviation: nearly 11,000. The aim of this model was to produce a cheaper, more efficient commercial aircraft with a smaller, more versatile fuselage and two engines.
This model has various designations and sub-designations: B373 Original (series 100 and 200), B737 Classic (series 300, 400 and 500), B737 Next Generation (series 600 to 900) and B737 MAX (series 7, 8 and 9).
The next model is the B747, popularly known as the “Jumbo Jet”. It marked a milestone in aviation as the first wide-body commercial aircraft with twin aisles and a double-deck for passengers. Its first flight was in January of 1970 and more than 1,500 units have been manufactured. It was also the first aircraft that was designed from the beginning for dual passenger or cargo use. This model’s series are the 100’s (the original), the 200’s, 300’s, 400’s and the 8. Each name also included a series of letters that indicate the aircraft’s function (passenger, cargo, mixed use, length…).
Starting with the next model in the designation order, the B757, all aircraft have twin aisles: the B767, B777 and B787. According to this, the next in line would logically be called the B797, but that’s another story.
In the case of Airbus, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning of the company in 1966, when various European aeronautics manufacturers conceived of the possibility to build an aircraft that would compete with US omnipresence in the aeronautical industry dominated by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed.
The new aeronautical consortium, Airbus Industrie, was composed of Aerospatiale (France), Deutsche Airbus (Germany), Hawker Siddeley (later British Aerospace, United Kingdom), Fokker-VFM (Holland) and Construcciones Aeronauticas CASA (Spain).
The first aircraft was the A300. The “A” comes from the first letter of the company’s name. The 300 comes from the initial aim to develop a twinjet aircraft capable of transporting 300 passengers at an affordable cost. After preliminary studies, the new model’s capacity was reduced to 250 passengers and to using one of the engines already on the market, the Rolls-Royce RB207. Despite changing the number of passengers, it was decided to keep the name.
When it was ready for market, the name changed to A300B, being that it was a lighter, cheaper aircraft than those manufactured by US rivals. The immediate success of this aircraft established the consortium as a great manufacturer. By the end of 1979, they had more than 250 orders. Airbus Industrie decided to continue with the A3xx designations for commercial aircraft in order to build on the trust generated by the first model.
Next came the A310, a jet that is somewhat shorter than its predecessor, but has a longer range.
And then came the A320, ultimately the company’s biggest commercial success, which was accompanied by various models, all single-aisle, twinjets that maintained the same design principles. Therefore they were designated with numbers immediately surrounding A318, A319, A320 and A321, thus slightly breaking with the customs for naming aircraft models.
Next came models A330, A340 and A350, which followed the company’s pattern. The A330 and A340 were developed in parallel and even shared many components. The basic difference is that the first is a twinjet while the second is a quadjet. The A350 has been revolutionary because it is the first model that Airbus has developed with a mindset thoroughly dominated by efficiency and the fight against climate change. The use of composite materials and a new generation of engines makes it the most efficient model currently on the market in its category.
Airbus made a leap in numbering when it presented its A380, a name associated with the fact that its initial design hoped to double the A340’s capacity (which, by the way, it did not), which was the company’s largest plane at that time.
Finally, Airbus broke its customs for naming models when the A220 entered the market. It was an aircraft initially designed by Bombardier Aerospace in the C-Series which is produced by a consortium made up of Bombardier, Airbus and the Quebec Government. It has two versions: the A220-100 and the A220-300.
The way Airbus names its models has been less systematic than Boeing. Therefore, it is difficult to know whether or not the next aircraft will be the A390. Or not.
Knowing all these aircraft model names could seem complex and pointless. That could be, but surely many frequent fliers not only identify each aircraft, but also know many characteristics of each model and enjoy the advantages of knowing how the seats are laid out, where the bathrooms are located and where there’s more legroom or space for hand luggage. Enjoy your flight!