It is hard to pick between two aviation legends, but I will compare the Airbus A321 vs Boeing 737 to help you understand what makes these short and medium-haul narrow-body jets so popular. Boeing had an excellent headstart in the market, but Airbus was quick to catch up, and in my opinion, the European airliner is the one setting the pace in this race.
Bottom Line Up Front
The Airbus A321 and the Boeing 737 are two of the best airliners ever made, but since the 2010s, the European entry has outperformed its American competitor in technology, performance, and sales. The Boeing 737 has plenty to catch up on, but time favors the Airbus A321.
The Main Differences Between Airbus A321 vs Boeing 737
As the Airbus A321 series represents the stretched variants of the A320 family, the appropriate comparisons are with stretch versions of the Boeing 737. The original A321, sometimes featured as the A321ceo, is contemporary with the Boeing 737-900. The A321neo and its derivatives match well with the Boeing 737 MAX 9 and MAX 200. The Boeing 737 and the Airbus A321 have a similar arrangement, developed from the Boeing 707.
The 737 rides close to the ground while the Airbus A321 has increased ground clearance. The Boeing is slightly taller than the Airbus, thanks to its larger fuselage diameter and vertical stabilizer. The 737NG series uses the CFM56 engine with a flat bottom. The Airbus A321ceo family uses both the CFM56 and V2500.
The 737 uses traditional winglets, whereas the A321 has much smaller wingtip fences. Starting with the A321neo, Airbus added the so-called sharklets. The Boeing 737 MAX and some 737NG have unique-looking double winglets.
The Boeing 737 uses a traditional yoke, but the Airbus A321 replaced the bulky yoke with a sidestick, which freed up leg room. The Boeing 737 moves the throttle levers based on the power setting under auto-throttle, while the Airbus A321 throttles are static.
The Boeing 737 is an evolution of a design dating back to the 1960s, whereas the Airbus A321 came from the late 1980s A320. The technology at the core of these designs matches their era.
- Good ground clearance
- Smaller vertical stabilizer
- More engine options
- Wingtip fences on older models
- Sidestick and fly-by-wire controls
- Younger project
- Small ground clearance
- Taller overall
- Limited to CFM engines
- Unique winglets on later variants
- Traditional controls
- Ageing airframe
The Airbus A321 and the Boeing 737 belong to the same class, and the passenger experience is similar. The 737 has a slightly narrower fuselage, which lets the A321 use wider seats and gives it more headroom. Boeing uses large windows, so passengers get a better view there. In a first-class arrangement, both use a 2-2 seating scheme.
Boeing introduced the Boeing 737 in 1968, 26 years before the Airbus A321. The legacy of the 737 exceeds that of the A321, but this may change in the future. The Airbus A321neo forced Boeing to react with the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9, but the series had a troubled launch.
Many aviation experts believe the time of the 737 is over, and there is reason to believe Boeing will not create a future version of the aircraft. In 2009, Boeing filed a patent for the Y1 project. This concept outlined a mid-sized airliner to replace the 737 and 757 series, called Boeing New Midsize Airplane (NMA). The company had to put the project on hold to deal with the 737 MAX crisis.
The Making of the Airbus A321 and the Boeing 737
It is essential to understand their origins, history, and capabilities. Nearly three decades separate the debut of the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A321, but that has not stopped these aircraft from competing for the top spots in the medium-haul segment.
After dominating the early jetliner market with the 707, Boeing made its mark again with the 727 in 1964. The iconic trijet became a staple for medium and short-range routes, but its relatively large passenger capacity made it unsuitable for less popular trips due to the high cost. Boeing identified a gap in the market that existing jet and turboprop airliners could not bridge.
The initial design studies resembled the arrangement of the Boeing 727. This choice made the 1964 proposal look like the Soviet Tupolev Tu-134 from 1963. A year later, engineer Joe Sutter proposed moving the engines to wing pods, making the structure lighter and simplifying maintenance procedures. Boeing dropped the T-tail in favor of a conventional horizontal stabilizer arrangement mounted on the fuselage. This change marked the birth of the iconic 737 looks.
To accelerate the certification process, Boeing kept extensive parts commonality with the Boeing 727, including the fuselage itself. The 737 used a shorter version of the same profile, inherited from the earlier 707. The airfoil profile used on the new jet was thicker than its predecessors near the engine section to reduce drag at higher speeds. The first Boeing 737 used the same JT8D low-bypass turbofan engines used in the 727 and newer 707 variants.
The Boeing 737 project launched in February 1965, and West German airline Lufthansa placed the first order of 21 units. Boeing expanded seating to 100 passengers, but this was not enough for United Airlines, who had placed an order for 40 737 in April. To accommodate the different needs, Boeing began developing a stretched version. The original concept became the 737-100, while the stretch aircraft was now the 737-200. This fork in the development turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Boeing, as no more than 30 737-100 came to fruition.
Boeing delivered its first 737 in December 1967 to Lufthansa, but customer feedback led the American company to revise its project. This work resulted in the new Boeing 737-200 Advanced that debuted with All Nippon Airways in 1971. The Advanced variant of the 737 incorporated a host of minor changes, including adjustments to the brakes, fuel capacity, and aerodynamics. The improvements resulted in better range and payload, and the new variant replaced the 737-200 on the production line. The last 737-200 left the Boeing facility in August 1988, ending a run of over 1000 units.
The first generation of the Boeing 737 included convertible freight versions. The 737-200C had a mixed passenger and cargo configuration in the same flight, whereas the 737-200QC (Quick Change) allowed airlines to use the same airframe for full passenger or cargo roles with quick turnaround times.
Boeing 737 Classic
The Boeing 737-200 was an overwhelming success for Boeing, but after a decade of operation, the company recognized the need to modernize the project. Work on a new generation of the 737 began in 1979, intending to expand its range and passenger capacity.
To power what would become the 737 Classic series, Boeing picked the new CFM56-3B-1 high-bypass engine. CFM International helped design a new engine nacelle and fan placement that let Boeing fit the bulky CFM56 to the 737 wings, with its limited ground clearance. The new 737 could seat 149 passengers thanks to fuselage and wingtip extensions. The aircraft incorporated several aerodynamic improvements over its predecessor. Boeing included an EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrumentation System) option, but the default cockpit remained analog for the most part. The 737-300 became operational in November 1984 with US Air.
The new narrow body line consisted of the 737 and 757, but the company felt a gap in performance and cost between the two. To counter this, executives launched the Boeing 737-400 in 1986. The new airliner was 10 feet longer than the 737-300 and expanded passenger capacity to 188. The lengthened fuselage required a bumper on the tail as tail strikes became a possibility in case of over-rotation on takeoff. The new aircraft had its debut in 1988 with Piedmont Airlines.
While the 737-300 and 737-400 sold well, their expanded capacity was excessive for the routes dominated by the 737-200. As those aircraft aged, Boeing created a smaller 737 Classic version to avoid losing older clients to other manufacturers. Boeing revealed the 737-500 in 1987 and delivered the first units to Southwest Airlines in 1990. The fuselage on the new model is 7 ft 10 shorter than the 737-300, but it could still seat 140 passengers. The 737 Classic family sold 1988 units between 1984 and 2000.
In 1993, Boeing launched yet another generation of the family, branded the 737 Next Generation. Most pilots and passengers call it the 737NG. This upgrade brought newer CFM56-7B engines and a new wing with a thinner airfoil profile. Boeing introduced a glass cockpit on all units rather than as an option and revamped the passenger cabin for added comfort and a cleaner visual. The 737NG does not use a fly-by-wire system like the Airbus, but it incorporates a stall mode for the Boeing Speed Trim System to make automatic recovery easier.
The first variant of the Next Generation was the Boeing 737-700, introduced in 1993 and debuting in December 1997 with Southwest Airlines. The 737-700 seats between 126 and 149 passengers. Boeing aimed to replace the 737-300 units in the market to prevent customers from jumping to the new Airbus A319. Boeing built 1128 737-700 units, plus five of the convertible 737-700C.
Boeing launched a stretched variant of the 737NG in September 1994. The 737-800 can carry between 162 and 189 passengers. The introduction of the 737-800 allowed Boeing to sell replacements to the 737-400 and 727-200. The company closed the production of the MD-80 and MD-90 it had inherited from the merger with McDonnell Douglas. The company delivered 4991 Boeing 737-800, making it the most popular 737NG model.
To replace the older 737-500, Boeing introduced the 737-600 in 1995. The new model fits up to 113 passengers, making it ideal for lightly loaded short and medium-haul flights, and earned a meager 69 orders.
The last 737NG model was the 737-900 series. The aircraft focused on the range rather than payload and had a seating capacity of 189 passengers. Boeing modified the exit doors and the rear bulkhead to allow up to 220 passengers aboard.
Boeing 737 MAX
In response to the Airbus A320neo family, Boeing launched its re-engine program branded the 737 MAX series in August 2011. The new line aimed to expand the range of the aircraft from 3215 to 3825 nautical miles depending on the model. The main feature is the new CFM LEAP-1B engines and the characteristic double-tipped winglets.
The series began with the Boeing 737 MAX 8, launched in July 2013. The type flew its first commercial route in May 2017 with Malaysian airline Malindo Air. The company followed up with the 737 MAX 200, which promised the best cost efficiency per seat in the narrow-body airliner market.
For shorter routes, Boeing introduced the 737 MAX 7 with a short fuselage to replace the 737-700 and beat the Airbus A319neo. According to statistics Boeing published, the 737 MAX 7 exceeds the A319neo passenger capacity by 12 seats and its range by 400 nautical miles.
Boeing launched a stretched long-range version of the MAX series branded the 737 MAX 9, a successor to the 737-900 and 737-900ER. This variant can fly out to 3605 nautical miles and had its debut in March 2018 with Lion Air. The American company wanted to go further and proposed the 737 MAX 10 in 2017, but certification struggles prevented the type from entering service.
Despite being a promising series, the Boeing 737 MAX had a difficult entry into service. Boeing installed the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) into the flight controls to replicate the handling characteristics of the 737NG in the 737 MAX series. This system aimed to ease the transition between generations for pilots, as, without it, the 737 MAX had an unpleasant pitch-up tendency.
Design and training flaws related to the MCAS led two 737 MAX to crash in October 2018 and March 2019. Aviation and transport authorities revoked the type certificate for the Boeing 737 MAX family, grounding it until the company produced a fix with the Federal Aviation Administration. The timing could not have been worse, as the commercial aviation industry entered a crisis the following year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 737 MAX eventually flew again, but Boeing lost $18.4 billion in 2019 alone due to aircraft undelivered and canceled orders. To make matters worse, many clients who suspended and canceled orders flocked to the Airbus A320neo family instead.
- Tried and tested design
- More authority to the crew
- Lower operational costs
- Cargo conversions available
- Outdated flight control system
- Fewer engine options
- Smaller seats
The jet airliner market is the most unforgiving in aviation. All aviation manufacturers participating at the beginning of the jetliner age eventually folded or left the market, except for Boeing. The company revolutionized the market in 1958 with the Boeing 707 and has never left the top of the food chain.
As American competitors to Boeing began to falter, the company found a new challenger. Major European manufacturers struggled to compete alone in the airline market, so in 1970 they created an Economic Interest Group called Airbus Industrie. The new consortium brought expertise from the leading design bureaus from France, West Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The cooperation quickly brought results, and in 1974 Air France introduced the A300, the world’s first twin-engine wide-body airliner. The new design was revolutionary. The Airbus A300 had an excellent range and payload that bested most three and four-engine aircraft in the market, but with far lower operational costs. In 1977, the pan-European airliner became the first aircraft to comply with Extended Range Twin Operations (ETOPS) regulations, effectively signaling the end of the trijet era.
Airbus had made a splash in the wide-body market, but the company did not have a suitable offering for short-haul routes. Delta Air Lines approached the company with a request to build a short-haul airliner capable of flying approximately 150 passengers with a range of 2850 nautical miles. Airbus incorporated the new requirements into the preexisting SA2 project.
The new airliner appeared in 1984 as the Airbus A320. Clients could initially pick between the CFM International CFM56 and the IAE V2500. The Airbus A320 made its first commercial flight in 1988 with Air France.
Much like the Airbus A300, the A320 design was revolutionary at the time. Arguably the most iconic features of the Airbus A320 family are in the cockpit. The jet has a glass cockpit, but the two standout innovations are the fly-by-wire system and the sidestick controls.
The Airbus A320 family incorporates an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) and an Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) screen to inform pilots about the status of the aircraft and its systems. Newer versions replaced the CRT displays with color LCD screens. Like the A310, the Airbus A320 and its derivatives did away with the flight engineer position.
Airbus drew from its experience pool when designing the flight control system for the A320 series. French engineers at Dassault Aviation had just introduced an advanced digital fly-by-wire system in the Mirage 2000C fighter. Airbus designers tested a version of this system on a modified A300 airframe and selected it to control the new A320. The A320 was the first commercial airliner to use a digital fly-by-wire flight control system. The handling of Airbus aircraft is similar across the series, which helps pilots to transition seamlessly between models.
The company paid close attention to the panic following the oil crisis of 1973, which led fuel prices to surge. Airbus made heavy use of composite materials in aircraft construction to bring down its weight. To keep the center of gravity in the optimal range, the Airbus A320 automatically balances the fuel between the tanks. This system became operational in the A300.
Airbus delivered 74 aircraft during the first two years of the A320, with hundreds more on order, but the company spotted room for growth. In November 1988, the company launched a stretched version of the aircraft. The new project, eventually baptized as the Airbus A321-100, could seat 185 passengers originally.
Airbus kept the changes in design to a minimum so that the A320 and A321 remained under the same type rating. This decision would allow companies to work with a single pool of pilots for both types. The same would eventually happen with the later smaller versions of the A320 family, the Airbus A318 and A319.
The Airbus A321 had a 14ft fuselage plug ahead of the wing root and an 8 ft 9 one behind it. The new dimensions and weight affected performance and required further alterations. Airbus modified the flap system and the trailing edge to account for the longer airframe, which increased the wing area by 50 sq ft. The maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of the A321 rose by 21200 lbs and required reinforcements to the landing gear and the fuselage structure.
Airbus delivered the first A321 to Lufthansa in 1994, but in 1995 the conglomerate identified shortcomings with the design. The airliner had great passenger capacity but offered the same range as the smaller A320, which limited its use on longer routes. Airbus set its sights on coast-to-coast American flights.
The revised variant became the A321-200. The new aircraft had a provision for up to two additional 790-gallon fuel tanks and received structural reinforcements plus more powerful engines to compensate for the higher weight. The A321-200 now had a maximum takeoff weight of 205000 lbs. The type made its first commercial flight with Monarch Airlines in April 1997. Thanks to its range and passenger capacity, it could compete with the Boeing 757 and larger 737 variants.
In 2010, fuel costs and environmental concerns pushed Airbus to re-engine the A320 family. The Airbus A320neo line, standing for New Engine Option, offered up to 500 additional nautical miles of range with fuel savings of up to 15%. The aircraft can use the CFM International LEAP-1A or the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines. Airbus introduced redesigned winglets, which it branded sharklets. The first Airbus A321neo made its debut in May 2017, flying for Virgin America.
In 2014, Airbus aimed to dethrone the Boeing 757-200 series for long-range narrow-body travel. The European company designed a version of the A321neo with a provision for three additional fuel tanks. The maximum takeoff weight rose to 214000 lbs, but the new variant can fly out to 4000 nmi, 100 nmi farther than the 757-200. The first A321LR commercial flight happened in November 2018 for Israeli airline Arkia. Designers doubled down on the aircraft with the Airbus A321XLR, first publicized in the 2019 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget.
As of June 2022, Airbus delivered 2569 aircraft to customers, with another 3463 on order.
- Digital fly-by-wire system
- Wider seats
- Modern design philosophy
- More expensive for shorter or emptier routes
- Fewer control redundancies
- No cargo variants
At 206000 lbs, the Airbus A321-200 is heavier than the Boeing 737-800, but it compensates for this with the more powerful engines rated for 33000 lbf, against 27300 lbf each on the Boeing offer. Both aircraft have similar nominal cruise speeds hovering around Mach 0.78, but the Airbus A321ceo can carry 185 passengers in a standard arrangement, compared to 162 for the 737. The Boeing 737-800 exceeds the Airbus A321-200 range by 230 nautical miles, for a total of 2930 nmi.
While Boeing leans on traditional flight controls with minor augmentations, Airbus built the A321 around a digital fly-by-wire system, like most new aircraft introduced in the late 1980s. The practical result is that the jet prevents the pilots from exceeding the flight envelope. There is no consensus about which method is better. Some pilots prefer the safety that Airbus provides, while others do not feel comfortable letting go of the full authority in Boeing.
The added passenger capacity on the Airbus A321-200 is both a blessing and a curse, as while it allows airlines to move more passengers in one go, it also makes less popular routes cost-prohibitive on the aircraft. While the A321ceo was a welcome addition to the A320 family, the commonality and familiar aspect of the 737NG made it hard to compete in earnest. The Boeing offering outperformed Airbus in the market.
The Boeing hegemony in this class did not last long, however. Airbus hit hard in 2010 when the company disclosed its A320neo family and forced Boeing to play catch-up. The Airbus A321neo and the Boeing 737 MAX 8 entered service around 2017. Both aircraft boasted a similar range with a marginal advantage over the A321neo, but Airbus retained its better passenger capacity.
The tried and tested fly-by-wire on the Airbus was a smooth transition for pilots from previous A320 family models. Boeing attempted to repeat this with the MCAS to keep flight characteristics close to the 737NG, but this decision led to two deadly crashes that seriously damaged the new 737 families.
Even after surviving the trouble caused by the MCAS, Boeing could not keep up with Airbus. The European company introduced the Airbus A321LR, which extended the A321neo range to 3996 nmi. In response, Boeing brought in the 737 MAX 9. This aircraft increased the passenger capacity to 193 in a two-class configuration. The number still fell short of the 206 of the A321neo and A321LR.
The final nail in the coffin came with the Airbus A321XLR. This improved variant of the A321neo took its range to 4698 nautical miles, exceeding the Boeing 737 MAX 9 by 1100 nmi while retaining the 206 seats.
Question: Is the A321 better than the Boeing 737-900ER?
Answer: The standard Airbus A321 can fly farther and fit more passengers than the Boeing 737-900ER while having a more comfortable cabin for passengers.
Question: Is the Boeing 737 safer than the Airbus A321?
Answer: The Boeing 737 and Airbus A321 have excellent safety records.
Question: Do pilots prefer Airbus or Boeing?
Answer: Most pilots have strong opinions about the two aircraft and almost universally side with what they currently fly.
Question: How many Airbus A321 have crashed?
Answer: There have been nine A321 hull losses as of July 2022, including two fatal ones.
Question: Does Boeing still make the 737?
Answer: Yes. Boeing currently produces the 737 MAX, the E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, and the P-8 Poseidon. The E-7 and P-8 use a modified 737NG airframe.
Some experts believe the 737 MAX is a sign that the 737 has run its course, and I agree. Very few airliners ever broke the 60 year of production mark, and there is a chance the 737 will be one of the last to do so. Having an established platform has its advantages, but it also limits the growth potential of the family.
Bombardier had to let go of the classic Learjet lines to bring the family into the future, and Boeing ditched the trijet to focus on twin-engine aircraft. I believe we will see a new aircraft family by Boeing soon enough to replace the 737 and 757 in service. It is difficult to say when this will happen, but I am excited to see what Boeing comes up with after the revolutionary work done with the 787.
Before this new aircraft, I am confident that Airbus has taken the lead in the narrow-body market. This superiority shows both in the products themselves and their sales. The Airbus A321 has outperformed comparable 737 variants well before the MAX crisis hit, according to data from Cirium. The A321-200 and A321neo variants outperformed the 737-900, 900ER, MAX 8, and MAX 9 in the last decade. Starting in 2021, Boeing began closing the gap by fulfilling its 737 MAX 8 order backlog, but it is unlikely that the 737 will ever catch up to the A321 again.
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