Q: Do you think there is a difference in the quality of Boeing aircraft versus Airbus? I get the impression Airbus planes are made more cheaply, and they seem to sound that way too — loud and tincanny. Boeings feel much more solid, are quieter, and don’t seem to rattle. What do you think?
I despise this question, but I need to answer because it comes up all the time in various and slippery forms. To describe an Airbus as “tincanny” belittles the complexity and impressiveness of an airliner, no matter who makes it. When I accuse the ATR of being “fragile,” or if I call the DC-8 a “relic,” as you’ve come across in past columns, this is a pilot being colloquial. The ATR is not a Yugo and neither, even by the most lenient sense of extrapolation, is an A340.
The guts, if you will, of an Airbus are different in many ways to those of a Boeing. It’s not unlike comparing Apple to IBM, and each has its diehards who’ll hate crossing over. Different planes abide by different philosophies of construction and operation, with all fashion of pleasant and annoying quirks within. It gets technical. Opinions on which is the “better” plane delve into the nuts and bolts of the systems — the kinds of details that will get you (and me) yawning fast, and that do not reveal themselves as squeals, moans, or rattles during takeoff. It comes down to preferences and, in a way, style, more than quality or lack thereof. There is no statistical safety difference that merits citing.
Both Boeing and Airbus have their fans and detractors for many reasons, but neither is cheap or tincanny. In the end it’s probably a wash. It ought to be when it’s $60 million for your choice of a 737 or A320, or $150 million for a 777 or A340. At those costs, nobody could get away with selling junk.
Noise levels are about equal too. Exposure to noise, and the kind of noise, depends greatly on where in the cabin you’re sitting and the position of the engines, most notably during takeoff. On planes with wing-mounted turbofans, those seated closer to the front will hear a very distinctive grinding sound that emanates from the engine’s fans and compressors, while a louder, whooshing roar is heard in the back. In planes like the MD-80 (DC-9), with aft-mounted engines, takeoff noise is almost nonexistent in the most forward rows.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.