Whenever I’m at an airport with people, they never cease to be amazed when I can tell them exactly what plane they’re looking at by glancing at it for a few seconds. I have spent a few years expanding my knowledge of ‘plane spotting’, and here, I’m imparting all my knowledge to you so you can do the same.

Whilst the term ‘plane spotting’ may conjure up images of a pensioner hunched by a runway in an anorak, spying at planes through binoculars, the activity is actually a rather fun thing to do at an airport, and it’s very satisfying to be able to tell any plane apart in a second just by looking at it. With that in mind, here’s a guide on how to tell airplanes apart. For simplicity’s sake, I’m only covering Airbus and Boeing aircraft in mainstream passenger operation.

747 vs A380 vs A340

Let’s start off with the biggest. All have 4 engines, but the A340 has only one storey. By contrast, the 747 has a distinctive ‘humped’ second floor at the front, while the A380’s second level stretches right to the back. An A380, 747 and A340 (respectively) are shown below:

777 vs A330

Both are classic long-haul aircraft, but did you know that a 777 doesn’t ever have winglets? Its Airbus counterpart, on the other hand, had distinctive sloped winglets. Also, the under carriage of the A330 only has four wheels on each set of aft landing gear, whilst the slightly bigger 777 has six on each. Here’s an A330, then a 777:

787 vs A350

The super-fuel-efficient planes come next. The 787 has characteristic ‘swooped’ wings and serrated nacelles on the engine for less noise, whereas the A350 has curved winglets.

767 vs 757

These are the hardest to tell apart. The 767 is a lot bigger however, and the 757 a single-aisle, so a lot narrower.

737 vs A320 family

Now, let’s delve into the single-aisle short-haul aircraft. The 737 has a pointier nose, whilst its competitor has a snubbed, rounder nose. Both have winglets/sharklets of varying descriptions, depending on their exact series and variation.


Final thoughts

As with anything, practice makes perfect. If you’re struggling, consider downloading a plane-finder app on your phone, which will help verify the model. Reckon you’re getting good at this whole plane spotting thing? Have a read of part 2, where we take a look at how to distinguish between different variations and models of aircraft.