How to Identify Commercial Airliners


Chart showing the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB side-by-side

With the large variety of airliners serving the worldwide transportation market today, identification of individual aircraft manufacturers and planes can be a bit tricky.

Airliner spotting and photography remain a passion of ours today, as it does for thousands of others around the world. Some are casual, beginning observers, others are more fanatical, knowledgable and experienced.

But we all share an interest, fascination and appreciation of those magnificent flying machines that whisk us all around the world today.

What to Look for When Identifying an Airliner

Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011-500 TriStar, Registration N751DA, at the gate at the Frankfurt, Germany Airport, August 1982

Here are some details to look for when identifying an airliner, features that can help distinguish one aircraft from another:

  • Overall size of the airliner, e.g., narrow-body or wide-body
  • Jet or turboprop powered
  • Number of engines
  • Engine placement, i.e., under the wing or on the rear of the fuselage
  • Shape of the nose section
  • Cockpit windshield design, i.e., number, placement and shape of glass windows
  • Landing gear arrangement, number of wheels, and fuselage height above runway
  • Number of entry doors along the fuselage
  • Number and location of emergency exit doors
  • Tailfin design
  • Shape of APU exhaust
  • Size of the wingbox
  • Number and placement of passenger windows fore and aft of the wings
  • Winglets, and their shape and design

A Few More Spotting Tips

The first Boeing 747
First Boeing 747, Museum of Flight, Seattle WA (Staff Photo)

Be knowledgable of security regulations and restricted zones when spotting at airports or private property. No one wants to get arrested for just enjoying a hobby! More and more airports today are welcoming spotters, but some are not.

Bring your best binoculars, and backup batteries for those cameras and phones ... plus maps, printed or digital. And food and water for those long spotting trips.

When possible, do a lookup on aircraft registration numbers ... some common registration inquiry sites.

 

And be sure to spot at places other than airports, like air museums, aviation airparks and airshows for other photo-ops and close-up spotting opportunities.

After saying all that ... a good starting point is our Airliner Spotting Guide.

Included below are illustrated guides for identifying a particular airliner.

Does It Have Four Engines?

If the airliner has two engines under each wing, for a total of four, it must be a Boeing 747, Airbus A340 or Airbus A380.

Identification Guide: 4-Engine Jet Airliners
Spotting Guide for 4-engine Jet Airliners

It Looks Like a Three Engine "Tri-Jet"

If the airliner has three engines, one in the tail, and one under each wing or two on the aft fuselage, it is an older aircraft, probably a Boeing 727 or maybe a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11. Few of these are in service today, and many of the ones that remain active are in the air cargo marketplace.

Identification Guide: 3-Engine Jet Airliners
Spotting Guide for 3-engine Jet Airliners

This Airliner Only Has Two Engines ... What Is It?

Now for the hard part! Most jet airliners in service today have two engines, one under each wing. Most active airliners manufactured by Boeing, Airbus and other manufacturers have this configuration. It might be a Boeing 737, Airbus A320, Boeing 777, Airbus A350, but it could be a A321 or 767. Our spotting guide to 2-engine jetliners should help!

Identification Guide: 2-Engine Jet Airliners
Spotting Guide for 2-engine Jet Airliners

 

Propellers and Turboprops

Turboprops continue to play a significant role in air transportation. Airliners from companies such as Bombardier, ATR, Antonov and others can be spotted at airports worldwide.

Identification Guide: Turboprop Airliners
Spotting Guide for turboprop airliners

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