• Op-Ed: B739 Versus A320

    My Backside Compares: B739 "Cattlecar" Versus A320 "Scarybus"

    By Ron Blehm

    First of all, let me say that your opinion is valuable and may, in fact, differ from my opinion. This is an Op-Ed so it is only my opinion which is based on my own experience and bias. You are welcome to your opinion as well (which is likely based on your own experience and bias). Other than a couple of unconfirmed memories from the 1970s, I think that I have always flown on Boeings. Let me re-phrase that: this piece compares a 739 with an A320. There will be no discussions about MD-80s or CRJs or DC-10s or 707s.

    I recently flew two Trans-Cons on United Airlines. One flight was on a 739 (I've flown 737 variants for years, never a -900 before) and the returning flight was on an A320 (I can honestly say that I had never before set foot on an A320). Sure, I've read the reports that Airbus claims to be 7" wider. I've sat in a 737-700 and looked UP at the A320 in the next gate. But this was five-hours in the seat!

    A post on Airliners.net from ten years ago stated that "at seat bottom, or knee level, that equates to about 5.8 inches wider - or less than an inch per passenger in six abreast economy class. But at the level people perceive comfort - around head and shoulders - the difference is less than three inches in the cabin, or less than a half inch per seat. For all practical purposes, most people can't tell the difference."

    Before flying I checked SeatGuru who report: "On average, the Airbus A320 seats are wider, but not by much. Only about 1/2 inch in economy."

    Next I checked the United Airlines web site: B739 = 179 total at 17" each vs. A320 = 150 total at 17" each. So, objectively I knew it was a straight-up draw, yet I was anxious to try both on for the first time.

    Now, as noted above, I've "only" flown on Boeings so far as I recall (no mention of the CV-990s or DC-8s) so I consider myself a Boeing fan or supporter. I've read the crash reports that would seem to indicate that when Airbuses have problems, pilots oftentimes struggle with the technology and seem to struggle to hand-fly them; it might seem that Boeings are more "intuitive" but I'm no pilot so this is likely just my own bias coming out. Despite this bias I wanted to try and really FEEL things objectively so that I could give an honest and open-minded report.

    And very briefly, here it is:


    • Cramped
    • Narrow aisle
    • A cloth-type fabric on the seat
    • 1.5" recline
    • I'm less than 5'10" and weigh under 170 pounds yet my knees were literally touching the seat in front, I felt cramped
    • This was not for the faint of heart; give me a 767 any day!


    (Having just gotten off 17-hours in a 777 I expected it to feel smaller).

    • Brighter
    • Narrow aisle
    • A leather-like seat that seemed to "fit" my backside
    • Nearly 3" of recline
    • There was scarcely room for my tiny seatmate to get out but just that task would have been impossible in the 739!
    • At first, I thought that the Airbus was quieter - less of a combustion sound, more of a purring. But over time I picked up and then started perseverating on a high-pitched whine, not unlike the turbocharger on my neighbor's big-ass turbo-diesel pickup. Over time, working on the A320 would certainly give you high-end hearing loss.


    • I have no idea which one is "better"
    • My Gluteus Maximus preferred the Airbus
    • My ears preferred the Boeing (maybe they were used to that sound?)
    • The Airbus windows "felt" smaller (maybe that was the 777 artifact?)
    • Here's the deal: Just because an aircraft CAN fly across the country with 180 sardines crammed into the back doesn't mean that it should be doing that; I'll take an L-1011 please!

    Here are two final thoughts:

    1. I read an article recently about how once a type-rating is certified an airline can change seating without having to re-certify the type. So a 739 with 148 seats passes the two-minute evacuation test and then United stuffs thirty-one more seats in and the aircraft is still considered "safe". I have a huge problem with that! Building codes would never allow such a thing without adding exit doors! This, if it is truly the case, is (IMHO) courting disaster.
    2. That ten year old blog I mentioned earlier also stated that, "statistics from both manufacturers, when you compare them, show that the 737 has better on-time reliability; the A320 series has a 40% higher chance of having a maintenance delay."

    So there you have it, no real conclusion; you all can continue to argue about which one you like better. Like most passengers, I will pick flights based on price and schedule rather than aircraft type.

    Ron Blehm
    Cub Flounder's FS HQ is at: www.toomuchfs.com

    1. flightman's Avatar
      flightman -
      Hi Ron,

      Interesting comparison report. Don't worry about the certification issue. Each type is certified for a maximum number. The 737-900 is certified for up to 189 passengers. If an airline wants to squeeze in more seats than that they will be required to provide more exits. Easyjet has two extra overwing exits in its A319s for example.

      Sound is subjective. I love the sound the IAE engines (as used by United) make in an A320 on takeoff. Others might prefer the CFM engine sound in the 737 (and some A320s).

      Seat width is important. I think an inch wider seat is better than an inch more legroom. However someone over 6' tall might disagree. I like a bit of extra elbow room. It's strange that the wider Airbus fuselage doesn't seem to provide more room for passengers in practice.

    1. dbauder's Avatar
      dbauder -
      I'm kind of a "If it''s not a Boeing, I'm not going" sort. However, I recently had the chance to ride on a brand new A321. Not being a person of size, I can't speak about the seat width but I did note the newer seats, which included TWO seatback pockets, allowing the designers to allow extra kneeroom where it was needed most. I'm thinking the Boeing folks also have this figured out but I haven't had the opportunity to experience it for myself.
    1. swanny's Avatar
      swanny -
      Thanks guys.
      Yes, I tend to agree on the Airbus sound but then there was that whine.....
      As noted, I've tended to prefer Boeings only because that's what I've always flown (Alaska and Southwest) but if I could CHOOSE for another Trans-Con (and they wouldn't offer me some sort of wide-body) I might take my foamy earplugs and the Airbus just based on FEEL.
      Also, REALLY NICE to know about the evac certification; thanks!
    1. SATJET's Avatar
      SATJET -
      My having flown as an ATP some 40 years, I have flown the entire Boeing and Airbus family of aircraft along as a passenger in First , Business and Coach class, I also owned a fairly large commercial aircraft leasing business, that being said, here is the truth to the airline business. All seats are for the most part the same as the manufactures have all merged the last few years. Airlines regardless of aircraft can give you better seats with width and cushion thickness but prefer not to. They can give you more leg room as well. Airlines are greedy and want to put an extra 10 to 15% more seats than was originally designed for, that means 26 inch pitch, that's the back of seat to the back off the other seat, no room for knees and some want 24 inch pitch. Seat width has been reduced to 24 inches. There is a design for a stand up style seat and pay lavs.
      Back in the 1970's you got 32 inch pitch and 32 inch seat width these all are for Y Class.
      So its not what the Manufacturer advertises its what the airline company actually installs in their planes.

      From a structure standpoint Airbus has a better wing in bad weather, better avionic technology and better corrosion resistance. Aerodynamics are better than Boeing, but Boeing has an edge in operational cost because of avionic technology is expensive maintenance. Both are fun to fly and the 73 is much better with the new wing that allows it to cruise up to Mach 82 at FL41 which early model Classics were stuck at max .78 mach.
    1. sd_flyer's Avatar
      sd_flyer -
      Do you realize that seating configuration is airline preference not aircraft manufacturer design?
    1. swanny's Avatar
      swanny -
      Okay, LOVED the last two comments. Very good info!
      Yes, two-abreast seating with cushiony recliners would be awesome (tv remote too) but not very profitable.
    1. abic's Avatar
      abic -
      I think the 320 series has a bit a more modern design/feel. Otherwise the seating configuration is cramped at both because of the airlines. I wish they give more room like "premium economy" for a slightly higher fare, I think this would be a good sales pitch by an airline if they start that as first!
      Comparing Boeing and Airbus I always felt that the air condition in the Airbus is better regulated, less cold "spells" and the insulation of the outside wall in Boeing is less effective, on long hauls you get a freezing shoulder if at a window seat.
    1. TightGit's Avatar
      TightGit -
      Not sure whether you rate more recline as a good or bad thing.

      Personally, I'd like to see NO recline in economy (coach) where I've already got my knees touching the seat in front during take-off!
    1. flightman's Avatar
      flightman -
      Limited recline has little comfort benefit and is seriously annoying to the person sitting behind. I'd agree that it would be better not to have it at all in economy (coach).
    1. flightman's Avatar
      flightman -
      Quote Originally Posted by SATJET View Post
      From a structure standpoint Airbus has a better wing in bad weather, better avionic technology and better corrosion resistance. Aerodynamics are better than Boeing, but Boeing has an edge in operational cost because of avionic technology is expensive maintenance. Both are fun to fly and the 73 is much better with the new wing that allows it to cruise up to Mach 82 at FL41 which early model Classics were stuck at max .78 mach.
      Maintaining mechanical flight controls isn't exactly cheap and swapping failed avionics boxes is far less labour intensive. They are expensive items to hold as spares. But so are many aircraft parts.

      Any future new Boeing will almost certainly be FBW and just as avionics heavy as an Airbus.
    1. avallillo's Avatar
      avallillo -
      It's not all about greedy airlines, it is a matter of financial survival. Sometime during the early phase of deregulation, many passengers started caring more about price than anything else. Oh, to be sure, they would whine like jet engines about food and seat room and the like, but when put to the test they strongly resisted paying more for it. At the fare levels that the lowest cost airlines (the ones with the most seats, strangely enough!) have been featuring, the only way to make a profit is to a) fill as many seats as possible on every airplane and b) charge for every ancillary item and feature that you can. Thus the "unbundling" of air fares, so that the advertised "fare" for the space on the plane itself can be low enough to attract the trade.

      I never flew the 737 or the A320, but the Airbus (A-300-600R) and Boeings (757/767) that I did fly have the opposite characteristics from what is mentioned above - namely, the Airbus wing was altitude limited and possessed of a "harder"ride than the comparable Boeing wing. This may have been due to the fact that the A-300 had been developed somewhat earlier than the 767/757, but at an equivalent percent of max gross weight either of the Boeings could climb to a higher altitude than the A-300, which is a very good characteristic when considering weather, particularly enroute convective weather.

      As for seat recline, I agree with flightman above - unless you have enough room to get a good 3 inches of recline without compromising the passenger behind you, it would be better to have all seats fixed at a semi-reclined position, say the equivalent of around 2 inches of recline on today's seats. I flew on Spirit last year and it appeared that they already are doing this - no seat reclined, yet the seats seemed to be semi-reclined already and were actually more comfortable than the unreclined seats on the airline we flew out on.

      There are, however, some good things about the current airline industry we should not forget about. For one thing, adjusted for inflation, most fares are lower than they were in what we think of as the salad days of the '50's and '60's. Your airplane and indeed the entire system is also safer than it was back then, particularly if we are comparing it to the '50's. At least in the USA. That has to be worth at least a smidgen of seat back recline!
    1. SATJET's Avatar
      SATJET -
      This is in response to Avallilo, You are correct on the A300-600R, as it has a .78 wing, having flown the two holer referenced 75/76 is a fine aircraft. flown to FL41 was a plus although Boeing wanted it to kept at 370. I can tell you work for my former company, to which I leased several aircraft too. I learned a lot when I became an aircraft lessor and got a Physical Dynamics certification, Airlines today are run by pencil pushers whom do not understand aviation ie: terrible customer service. Your company is proof of that with a castle in London for CEO and that hugh payout in the merger, wow. Boeing has been using designs from Mc Doug in all their new aircraft. I am a Doug man, big fan of the rigid body and wing. Airbus with Thales created a very simple avionics design that no one else in airline commercial mfg are doing except in portions, FBW is changing aviation. Airbus is idiot proof, if it crashes, the crew had to do so on purpose as the aircraft is set to prevent stalls, unusual attitudes and flight crew error inputs. if your trained to understand the avionics principals and follow procedures the aircraft is a dream to fly. I was set to purchase BI in a bankruptcy which was the first A 320 operator in the US with 33 aircraft from lessor GPA. Airbus warned me no to hire crews to fly the aircraft over 30 years of age as they would refuse to work with the avionics, taking a control override instead. Proved very true. Had Boeing not acquired Mc Doug, I am sure there would not be the current MD-!!/MD-95 panels in B-73 aircraft , although missing many additional functions. I was a fan of the 72's having converted a few to VIP's.
      Your right about safety being better, but the pilots in those days were fantastic, had to fly through really nasty weather, very little in radios and had to be dead on in their aviation skills. I applaud them and was proud to fly with many of them. Those skills are missing today by the new pilots.
    1. dljolly's Avatar
      dljolly -
      I flew the A320 only once, and my instant impression was of the wide aisle compared to the Boeing. But once in the seat, it was same-same...and the window did seem smaller...maybe the less-square shape?

      Still, both jets beat walking...the competition between the two can only be a good thing to make them both better,
    1. charleskohler's Avatar
      charleskohler -
      I recently did South Africa - Singapore - New Zealand and back on A350 and B777. I still prefer the Boeings. The Airbus ping when you are trying to sleep is too loud. The first time I flow on an A320 I was horrified by the flapping flaps, compared to the firmly anchored Boeing flaps. I will still fly Boeing wherever possible. The MD-90 series are still my favourite
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