The Middle-Seater's Guide to Aircraft Types

TRAVEL HACKING

Flying


A stroll through fleet street

Make sure you check twice when booking your flights - you don't wanna be shelling out money for 20 year old seats!

 The interior of an A350-900, photo from flight-global.com

The interior of an A350-900, photo from flight-global.com

What’s with airlines and their fleet of jets? Pull up any one carrier’s wikipedia page and you’d be greeted by a whole range of different jets from 777s (and its 3 variants) to A350s. A single change in any of the numbers in those codes can result in a drastically different flying experience especially for those stuck in between sleeping seatmates.

All of these terms and monikers can be confusing to the lay reader/flyer and so this is will be a practical guide of sorts. Read on if you want to find out which aircraft is the latest and most comfortable and which are the old decrepit Weinsteins of the aviation world. 

The new kids on the block

Nowadays, the new 787s and A350s are all the rage for both airlines and flyers. Boasting greater spaciousness, better airflow, stunning LED mood-lighting and composite materials; these jets promise a more comfortable flying experience allowing us travelers to arrive at our destinations ready to ward off taxi scams. 

The two jets introduce many wholly new innovations to flying but I’ll just quickly highlight three of them here. 

 Comparison between the A350 and the 787, from Quora

Comparison between the A350 and the 787, from Quora

1. Game-changing use of lightweight plastics and carbon fibre in the aircraft’s fuselage

The biggest determinant of comfort while flying (other than seats of course) is dependant on how the aircraft is pressurized. Ideally, you’d want your cabin to be pressurized at ground level which is what we’re all used to. However, as planes gain elevation and fly at high altitudes, the pressure difference between the cabin and the outside quickly increases and strong industrial materials are needed to prevent the plane from literally exploding. 

As innovations in material design come about (they become stronger), aircraft are better able to pressurize their cabin at higher levels (mimicking the ground better) as flight altitudes remain unchanged. What’s the multi-million dollar effort for? Lower altitudes allow for a greater availability of oxygen and moisture in the cabin - resulting in a more comfortable flying experience. This means fewer headaches and jet lag from your transpacific voyage. 

2. Extremely quiet flying

Though the A380 juggernaut remains as commercial flying’s quietest cabin experience, much is left to be desired comfort-wise after you see just how many people you have to squeeze with. 

The 787 and A350 are the now the quietest of the lot especially compared to the 777s and A330s that they are replacing. While this means that screaming babies are now more audible, in most cases, you’ll get better sleep and better service from less noise stricken flight attendants. However, that’s not to say that you airlines (if anyone’s reading) should be skimping on noise cancelling headphones!

3. Stunning LED mood-lighting

The Boeing 787 was the jet that introduced effective LED mood lighting to passengers and when implemented well, airlines are able to change the lighting/color of the cabin according to what’s happening in the flight. For example, the crew can gradually dim the lights for passengers when its about time to sleep and once again increase cabin brightness as the crew prepares for landing. The concept was so popular amongst customers that it prompted the company to adapt the concept for their new 737s, aptly named as the Boeing Sky Interior. 

If you’d like to sample pictures that show off the plane’s capabilities, check out some of the initial 787 launch pictures and for those obsessed with finding gold at the end of a rainbow, you can see Scoot beautifully boasting of their rainbow colored cabins in their full glory.

A350 flyers won’t be disappointed too as you can see the same mood-lighting (in its full 16 million colour repertoire) featured on Qatar’s A350s.

Nevertheless, if you really want to know which jet is ‘better’ or are concerned with safety, the 787 has encountered some problems in flight and there have been underreported issues with the build quality of 787s not built in the company’s main Everett factory. 

The jaded middle-aged elementary school teacher

The 777s and A330s are the wide-body workhorses of the aviation industry and are, therefore, not the most innovative planes out there. However, for most intents and purposes (though depending on the carrier), you’ll likely to not develop some sort of disdain for flying while on them. The 777 and A330 gave airlines the ability to make their flights more bearable if they choose to, but they are still not quite the planes that mean flights would definitely be better. 

The same can be said for the older A320s and 737s though people generally shy away from single-aisle planes because they’re perceived to be much more cramp than their widebody relatives.

These jets marked the gradual shift away from titanium towards composite construction and was mainly prized for the introduction of the fly-by-wire style of piloting. Fuel efficiency was improved but less attention was paid to passenger comfort.

While you probably won’t need to religiously adhere to those ‘how to survive a long haul flight’ guides if you’re flying on one of the newer jets, it pays to be informed if you’re flying on an older 777 or A330.

The Republican uncle you want to forget about 

Well unless you're flying in the US (of which 757s are everywhere) God forbid you have to go through this. 

The 757s are one of the older jets still in service because (US carriers are horrible) there are no viable replacements for this transcontinental workhorse. The jet features a winning combination of narrow-body efficiency and wide-body range that is hard to replicate. Even the 737 MAXs (billed as replacements) fall short of airline requirements due to their lackluster performance on coast-to-coast and transatlantic flights. Till a replacement comes along, we’re (me in Feb 2018) going to be stuck with a 25-year-old jet that has already been discontinued by its manufacturer.

 These aging 757-200s are still in service across United's fleet and are weirdly being used for its PREMIUM transcontinental services, photo from http://www.visitingphx.com/

These aging 757-200s are still in service across United's fleet and are weirdly being used for its PREMIUM transcontinental services, photo from http://www.visitingphx.com/

While American’s MD80s are gradually being phased out, this will only be completed by the end of 2019 which isn’t really anytime soon. These jets used to form the backbone for the domestic operations of American carriers, with AA at its peak operating 400 MD80s. Delta still has over 100 MD88s in service. These jets weren’t a revolution for comfort and nowadays, their battle-worn interiors, loud engines and retro seats (all euphemisms by the way) just aren’t appropriate for modern travel. 

For those reminiscing the glory of the Soviet Union, here’s a feature for you. The Ilyushin IL62 was a pioneer for its time, allowing for longer range operations when modern air travel was just getting off the ground. However, just like your political inclinations, the aircraft (and its seats) aren’t much to shout about and have already lost favor amongst most of its operators. These days, any wish to fly on an IL62 would most likely happen with Air Koryo which is also the world’s only one-star airline. 

Only recently discontinued 3 years ago, the DC-10 used to feature in the fleets of Air France, American Airlines, and Air New Zealand. Even if we were to discount the various ‘uncontrollable engine failures’ (that’s reassuring right) that plagued the aircraft in the 70s, a lack of IFE and aging seats made for an uncomfortable flight. Its last commercial flight was with Biman Bangladesh and it now mainly operates cargo flights. 

The bottom-line

Coming from someone who has flown extensively on A330s and 777s (also the 757 once), the vast improvements of the 787 and the A350 comfort-wise is definitely a welcome change especially on long-haul flights. 

A common criticism leveled at older jets lies with their general need for more costly maintenance and a greater chance of breakdown, which impacts an airline’s effort to maintain a high standard of on-time performance and reliability. Basically y’know, just stay away.

787s are pretty common now and I’d wager that most people would’ve traveled on one especially if you’ve flown with Scoot recently. Before its merger with Tigerair, Scoot was the world’s only LCC that exclusively operated wide-bodied aircraft, with a large portion of them being 787s. For those looking for a more exotic experience, Ethiopian operates a fifth freedom route between SIN and KUL on its 787, albeit at odd hours.

The A350 is now gradually entering into service as more aircraft are being delivered to Airbus’ airline partners. SQ loyalists would be happy to note that Airbus’ 10,00th aircraft, an A350, was delivered to Singapore Airlines. 

Flyers should welcome the introduction of these new jets as they offer greater levels of comfort, reliability and fuel efficiency, allowing airlines to further push ahead with innovations in comfort and also pass on cost savings to their customers. 

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