Some people will tell you that an airliner is an airliner. Don't believe them. When I book an intercontinental flight, I base my purchase on price, schedule, airline/alliance and – you'd better believe it – aircraft type. Once you read a bit about my observations about the best passenger planes, I dare you to stick by any notions that airliners are all the same.
The Boeing Family
Avgeeks call the 747 the Queen of the Skies. From the outside, this is one graceful, iconic machine â€¦ especially in its -400 and new 8 incarnations. My only recent 747 flights have been on Qantas (LA to Sydney, LA to Auckland), and it's a comfortable experience even in the cheap coach seats.
The thing is, this is a wide airplane. Three seats, an aisle, four seats, an aisle and three seats. So there's a good chance of getting wedged in a middle seat. That kind of stinks. But you'll be able to get up and walk around without banging your head.
Your experience will vary by airline. Not all of them will have on-demand entertainment like Qantas. That makes a difference when your flight spans continents.
By the way, the 747 is kind of headed for extinction. Fly one while you still can (my ideal would be the Lufthansa 747-8). It's a piece of history. And damn, it's just beautiful.
Grade – B
Here's what every avgeek loves about the 767 – only one true middle row seat because of the plane's 2-3-2 configuration. The odds will be ever in your favor for a chance to get up and stroll around (the perfect plane for Mr. Trololo?).
The problem is, most 767s are obnoxiously old. Few will have on-demand entertainment; my Kindle saved me during a flight from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City, and I needed some good books on my Qantas flight from Sydney to Darwin. Both examples of the type were getting stained and rough around the edges. The Asiana 767 I flew from Incheon to Tokyo and back, though, was closer to showroom condition.
Beware: United Airlines and American Airlines still fly 767s on long routes, especially to South America. Do your homework before booking because this is not one of theÂ best passenger planes.
Grade – C
This big, efficient twinjet is the reason that the 747 is on its way out. And another thing: Depending on your airline of choice, this could be the best passenger planeÂ aloft. My LA to Seoul flight on Asiana was a thing of beauty â€¦ a quiet airliner that barely bucked through a bunch of Pacific storm clouds. Oh, and the water fountains! Rather than relying on a flight attendant to stay hydrated, I could walk to the nearest water fountain with my Vapur bottle and fill up. Why not every widebody has this, I cannot fathom. Love!
Now, Asiana's 777s are shiny-spotless. I can't say the same for United Airlines (Dulles-Sao Paolo, Rio to Houston). No water fountains, a bit dingy â€¦ but still workable on-demand entertainment. At its best, one of theÂ best passenger planes.
Grade – B+
It was years late in taking to the skies. It's had a few hiccups. But right now, the 787 is one of theÂ best passenger planes. I went out of my way to take a United Airlines Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago just because I'm a ridiculous idiot. The LED-equipped cabin was nice, as was the on-demand entertainment. But it was tough to tell if it was really the â€œmoonshotâ€ it was supposed to be.
Until I took one from San Jose to Tokyo on All Nippon Airlines. Holy cow. Now, my wife is no avgeek. But she asked what was up with this cool plane after a few hours aloft. Was it the higher humidity, the higher cabin pressure, the big windows or the quiet cabin that she noticed? Probably a magic combination of the above. No water fountain, though. ANA also has footrests that are pretty great for shorter passengers, but tall guys like me will probably find that they get in the way.
Do watch out for the wild toilet contraptions in the ANA 787 lavatories. Take some video – it's worth the fun! The Dreamliner's electronics suite supposedly helps it avoid turbulence. But the route to Tokyo was pretty bumpy. This poor 787 got absolutely rocked most of the way.
There's one thing I don't like very much about the 787 – the dimmable windows. They don't completely block the light as a window shade would. So your window can get hot – not good for leaning your head against it to catch some sleep.
Also, beware the not all airlines configure their 787 the same. ANA had a 2-4-2 layout versus the United Airlines 3-3-3. So United's seats are a little skinnier, and you have a good chance of landing a middle seat. ANA does a nice job in its four-across portion, separating the two pairs of seats with a generous armrest.
Grade – A
The Airbus Lineup
My first A330 flight was on SAS from Chicago O'Hare to Stockholm Arlanda. The plane had been sitting in the sun for hours, and I have to guess the APU was off because the cabin was hot. Not a problem on most planes – you just aim the little air nozzle at your head and let it rip. Well, the SAS A330 doesn't have the nozzles. Neither does the Vietnam Airlines A330 (HCMC to Hanoi). The SAS flight needed nearly two hours of flight to cool down.
That's my only quibble with the A330. The SAS flight had top-notch on-demand entertainment. The Vietnam flight didn't, but it was configured for dense short-haul flights. So no big deal.
I have to say though, that the air nozzle situation means theÂ Airbus is not one of theÂ best passenger planes. Though I’ll give it points for looking like a muscle car of the skies. Beautiful plane.
Grade – D
Still Need a Ride On â€¦
Not very different from the A330 – just a few more engines for those extra-long flights. Some people think it’s even better-looking than the A330. I wonder if it has air nozzles …
Patrick Smith is right. This humongous aircraft is ugly as sin. Bigger than the Boeing 747, but it just looks … irradiated. Well, I hear the experience on the inside is great – smooth and quiet. I’d hate to be at the baggage carousel when one of these monsters rumbles in, though.
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