Question: Why are airliners all looking alike now?

I received a back channel question asking why all airliners are looking so alike now.

What the person was referring to was the fact that an A320 and B737 look, to the layman, almost exactly alike as do the medium and large widebody aircraft.  It’s true, the Airbus A330 is hard to distinguish from the Boeing 777/767 series aircraft too.

The only semi-distinguishable aircraft out there are the Airbus A340 (production has stopped), the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380.

But the question is why.

The answer is aerodynamics.  As manufacturers strive to gain more and more efficiency out of their aircraft, their aircraft start to look more and more alike.

Simply put, it’s about function over form.  When you design one of these aircraft, you don’t “style” it with something that goes against the aerodynamics of the airframe because such a thing could literally cost the user millions in fuel costs over the life of the airplane.

So, today, we have the Embraer E170/190 which looks a lot like how the Bombardier CS100/CS300 will look  which looks a lot like the Airbus A320 series which in turn looks a lot like the Boeing 737 series.  Because that shape works, we have the Airbus A300 which looks a lot like the Boeing 757/767 which looks a lot like the Airbus A330/A340 which looks a lot like the Boeing 777 which looks a lot like the upcoming A350 which also looks like the Boeing 787.

They all basically look alike with some slight differences and that is completely driven by aerodynamic efficiency.

It’s notable that the “odd ball” aircraft do not really survive past a single generation and don’t show up anymore.  The 727 was out of the ordinary with Boeing and its T-tail configuration was only ever used once by them.  The DC-10/MD-11 3-engine weirdness didn’t really last that long either.  The DC-10 did but the MD-11 died a quick death.  In fact, it’s notable that the MD-11 mostly died in popularity because it didn’t meet efficiency promises.

Oddballs don’t survive very long and those that do survive are driven in their function by physics.

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One Response to “Question: Why are airliners all looking alike now?”

  1. Non-twin airliners are hard to justify today. With very high ETOPS intervals and ultra efficient engines, only A/C the size of the 747/A380 will need 4 engines. The 777-300 engines can easily produce 98K of thrust. A center engine like the DC-10/727/L1011 is an operational and maintenance nightmare. Furthermore, the 787 is the first aircraft to have a common engine interface. Airlines can put either a GE or RR engine on any 787. This is the way of the future for ultimate flexibility. The A350 has announced only one engine so far, but if P&W gets in the mix (which I doubt) they will have to offer this feature to be competitive to the 787.

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