Strength in numbers

Every now and then, I find myself sharing the stage with my counterpart from Airbus. As you can imagine, we both work hard to highlight the competitive advantages of our products while “poking” at our competitor’s shortcomings. This back and forth is loved by the audience. From the stage, you’ll hear a few laughs and some groans. These sessions always offer up some great headlines for the media.

During a recent industry event in Singapore, I followed an Airbus speaker who provided an in-depth look at the single aisle market, specifically the A320ceo and the A320neo. Regarding efficiency, the Airbus storyline was simple: 1) The 737-800 and A320ceo are at parity today; 2) A320neo will see a 15 percent improvement; 3) 737 MAX will see less of an improvement; and 4) A320neo is therefore better than 737 MAX.

Problem is—that analysis is flawed right from the first assumption. Showing the 737-800 and A320ceo at parity doesn’t line up with our analysis of having a 6 to 7 percent advantage. So what’s going on? Sounds like another case of “seat count games”. My Airbus counterpart showed a two-class seating chart of a 737-800 with 157 seats and an A320ceo with 150—a seven seat advantage for Boeing. We actually show the 737-800 with a 12 seat advantage.

For an unbiased analysis, I turned to — the site that shows seating charts for just about any airplane still in service. Using a few examples from airlines that operate both aircraft, the seatguru stats back up our numbers.


737-800: 160 seats

A320ceo: 144 seats

16 seat advantage


737-800: 160 seats

A320ceo: 148 seats

12 seat advantage

Turkish Airlines

737-800: 155 (4-abreast business class)

A320ceo: 143 (with 5-abreast “alize” class)

12 seat advantage

airberlin (one class)

737-800: 186

A320ceo: 174

12 seat advantage

Air China

737-800: 167 seats (4 lavatories)

A320ceo: 158 seats (3 lavatories)

9 seat advantage

When you factor in the true seat count, we have a 3.3 percent fuel efficiency advantage.

My guess is that the Airbus analysis also does not reflect the latest improvements we’ve made to the NG including carbon brakes and the Performance Improvement Package (PIP) which we rolled out last year. But, this is clearly a better question for them.

Combining the seat count issue with all our latest improvements gets you to a 6 to 7 percent difference. So, if the aircraft are not at parity today, what does that say about the rest of the story? It’s always fun to have spirited debate with our competitors. But in this case, the numbers really do speak for themselves. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Comments (24)

Gilbert Speed (Los angeles):


Your comment about the audience loving the....... “poking” at our competitor’s shortcomings. This back and forth is loved by the audience....

I have found since the days of Adam Brown doing this that the audience when it is the supplier community is not always comfortable with this sparing particularly if they have equipment on both manufacturers airplanes.

Looking forward to Farnborough

Gil Speed

Varun G. (Chicago IL USA):

Good comparison Randy, looks like the 737's win again. Clearly the 737 is a bigger money maker for airlines, and I look forward to see more and more orders for the 737MAX. I hope United puts in their order soon, the plane seriously looks sick with those winglets:)

Tim K (Ont Can.):

The one thing marketing departments love doing is playing with numbers. These very creative people can spin any set of numbers anyway they want to say whatever point they are trying to prove. It is also absolutely amazing how Airbus and Boeing see the world completely different and proof of that is when they release their market forecast reports. You would think they would be close being in the same industry servicing the same customers but that is never the case and yet they both believe that their versions are the gospel truth. So I am not surprised at all to see this type of comparison end up as another misunderstanding between the two companies.

My question is has there ever been a case when both companies actually agreed on something, anything? I bet you if you asked both Airbus and Boeing how many hours there are in a day you would end up with two completely different answers and both would have very detailed charts and graphs to try and prove their points. Both companies would argue their case back and forth and supply us with countless hours of enjoyment listening to their rhetoric.

God bless Marketing departments, the world would be boring without them…

V V (Montréal, Québec):


I can't comment on the numbers you presented nor the efficiency comparison. However, I would guess that the airlines operating both aircraft types know exactly what the situation is.

If one aircraft is obviously more efficient than the other I would suppose that they would have not chosen both. So, may I ask you the reason behind the choice to operate both airplanes? Is is because one manufacturer offers better incentive, better pricing or better financing setup? Or perhaps one aircraft has better dispatch reliability?

Norman (Long Beach, CA):

The 737-800 wins in capacity over the A320. It certainly turns out that stretching the 737-400 to the 800 on the next generation model of 737 was innovative giving it a capacity advantage over the 737-400 which has the same capacity and came into service around the same time of the A320 as well as the MD-80 family of aircraft that went into service little more than a half decade earlier. It looks like the 737-800 and 8-MAX in the future will keep the seating capacity advantage over the A320NEO because I have yet to hear of any seating capacity improvements of the NEO over the current generation of A320 in production. I do not think that if the 737-400 was not stretched into the 800 model, it would have sold nearly or even half as well as is has sold in it's current form.

Andrew Boydston (Boise, ID, USA):

Even though seats is very handy comparison since it expresses the revenue element simply by count A broad brush stroke by Airbus citing parity does not explain the many other elements of expense of operation balancing against revenue. However, the Boeing product includes a product "Edge" component, reliability factors and product consistencies not accounted for in the parity statement.

It seems that Boeing offers a complete package that goes well beyond revenue seats per flight and fuel burn per seat. I have traveled for many years on the 737 and many times on the A320 and have noticed differences in aircraft for the customers experience, but do not know what goes on in the operation to give value to the ticket price. Southwest's Boeing Craft have given me the best experience even when other other aircraft types (makers) have left me on the ground.I do not want to list them since it is a long list of manufacturers. However, when measuring the total package offered from Boeing's 737 program, there is no parity for Airbus's A320.

Jules (York):

I agree with Tim K. Above. Marketing departments are well versed in spinning to create the desired outcome. And seat counts don't tell the whole story as we all know. Maximising profits from the cabin is paramount so if that means sacrificing 40 seats in economy to provide 20 higher premium seats, that has to make sense financially.

I have known the information on SeatGuru to be inaccurate and not always up to date. I have to assume you have checked these figures are right, but in truth the sole example that is a "direct" comparison, is that of Air Berlin and whilst the 737 does indeed have a 12 seat advantage, the seat pitch on the Boeing is 29" whilst that on the Airbus is 32".

I also agree with V V who puts the question to you about why it would be that someone like Norwegian Shuttle would split an order between Boeing and Airbus if the 737 was such a clear winner. Perhaps you can comment on this?

Al T. (Utah):

In response to V V from Montreal, I ask another question: how much of the A320 success is due to the 737 backlog? It seems Boeing has had a long backlog for a while, which may force airlines wanting planes sooner to look at the competition. I'm guessing (and if someone could provide more insight I would appreciate it) that if you have an aging fleet, getting 10% more efficiency with the A320 over current aircraft in 2014 may provide better economics than 15% efficiency with the 737 in 2017.

Randy Tinseth:

There's not really a blanket answer as to why some airlines operate both airplaes. In some cases, it may have stemmed for a merger or acquisition.

We always emphasize the value our products bring to the market.. and the residual values for our customers.

Dean (Salt Lake City):

Very interesting to see these numbers. I have always wondered why the base for each company tends to be dramatically different. It may not tell the whole story about which product really is better but is good food for throught.

Ted C (Mount Vernon, WA):

I would say the difference in seating capacity is:
Measure the distance from the cockpit door to the rear bulkhead on both the 737-800 and the A320. Take the difference of those two numbers, divide by 32" of seat pitch and multiply times 6.

mike rush (miami florida):

With all these comparisons between boeing and airbus this is more than a two horse race.I'am sure everybody knows that their are other manufacters in the making thus the new kids on the block won't have the backlog as the big boys do now.If bombadier proves successful i can see airlines changing their strrategy and buy fuel efficient planes that they can acquire faster than waiting a few years for.

Dan (Eastbourne, UK):

One thing that confuses me - if the 737-800 is really more efficient than the A320, why did Boeing choose to make it bigger than the A320 in terms of seats? It might be interpreted that the -800 was not as efficient as the A320 and needed more seats to match the A320 on unit costs.

Rick (Pembroke Pines, Fl):

The new Boeing Sky Interior is so superior to the Airbus, I am looking to see what will be complied next by airbus just like they copied the 737's winglets and called them 'sharklet'

Stig Morling Ph. D. (Stockholm, Sweden):

Dear Sirs, With reference to the debate on Boeing versus Aribus let me only give some comments as a traveller on most of the international aircrafts since 1973.

First of all as a passenger you ask for a good service and seating comfort. Regardless of the plane maker the question is as a matter of fact not the maker of the airplane that is of prime interest. (Many travelers have not got a clue on what Airliner they are sitting in!)

It is of course the seating comfort: If the seat pitch is too low the comfort is not available thus the number of seats in a given aircraft is rather reflecting the companies attitude to provide a passenger please attitude.

Please let me remember you that when SAS was a successful company in the 1980is the management had discussions foremost Boeing on a PPP - Passenger Please Plane - this perspective and ideas have not been put in focus for a long time - The final selection from SAS was at that time Boeing 767 and MD 80 as being the most closely models to a PPP.

That the "fight" between Boeing and Airbus has cooked down to a question of the seat numbers in a given plane seems to totally avoid the passenger please demands!

Best regards

Stig Morling

Andre Orban (Belgium):

The 737 may have more seats than the A320, but the seats in the A320 are wider, thus more comfortable. At Lufthansa for example, the dreaded middle seat is one or tow inches wider than the window or the aisle seats, which is appreciated by the passengers. This all is a result of a wider cabin.

Le bon vivant (Johannesburg, South Africa):

It looks like some people have a hard time believing that the 737 can be more efficient than the airbus a320.
The choice of an aircraft type is not based on efficiency only(discount offered on purchase price,politics, sentiments toward the manufacturer, residual value,after sales service..... the list is long).
Airbus says the A380 as a very efficient aircraft with the lowest mile/seat cost, does that mean that all 747 and 777 operators will replace their aircrafts with the a380? No.

Lufthasan bought both 747-8 and a380 why didn't they stick with the a380 if efficiency is all that determines the acquisition of an aircraft?
The is nothing strange in having a mixed fleet and one of the product in the fleet being superior to others.

As for the seat count, even airbus acknowledges a superior seat count for the 737, and besides the 737 uses a more modern and fuel efficient CFM56-7BE engine while the a320 uses the old CFM56-5A and 5B.

So it's hard to see how the A320 with a lesser efficient engine and lower seat count can be more efficient than the 737.

Have a good day ladies and gentlemen

Scratch (Alaska, USA):

There is little question, all else being equal, that most, if not all, airlines would prefer to own a fleet of X 737-800s over the same number of A320s. However, not all else is equal. When could this airline get the aircraft and at what price? This question probably favors Airbus in most cases. Favoring Boeing would be the resale value as well as dispatch / maintenance reliability. How many Airbus converted freighters are flying out there right now?

capnaux (PHX):

Fascinating! I always wanted to see side-by-side comparisons. Thanks!

Captain A320

Rob (Anochorage, AK ):

Airlines don't buy the best aircraft, they buy the best aircraft available.

Taylor G (Calgary, Alberta, Canada):

I see that the beloved 737 has come out on top yet again! besides that, I often prefer Westjet's 737NG seats than Air Canada's A32X seats 9much more comfy)

Can't wait until WS Places an order!

Taylor G

Nicholas (Winston Salem NC USA):

I have been on both Airbus and Boeing Aircraft both companies are the best in the world for developing Commerical Airplanes. The bottomline is if your charging millions and millions and millions of Dollars (Boeing) or Euros (Airbus) you have to be offering a superior product or else the Worlds Best Airlines would not be buying them. Also FYI there is also Bombardier and Embraer lets not forget them they are also big players in the Commercial Airplane Manufacturing Business. I have flown Bombardier and Embraer and they are also superior products.

David Terry (Oakland, CA, USA):

Having grown up in Issaquah, WA, I will admit that I am biased toward Boeing.

I would love to see United (my carrier of choice) order the 737MAX, and replace the 757 with the 737-900MAX and the A320 with the 737-800MAX. I oft fly PS between SFO and JFK, and those 757 planes are getting old!

Interesting points made about aircraft availability (becuase this is the only reasonable point I see in direct response to Randy's "real-world" numbers--unless there is an enmourous difference in price). Maybe it is time for Boeing to open another 737 line factory. Perhaps Long Beach, Oakland, or South Carolina. If really does come down to availablity, we sure could use those jobs in the USA.

Thierry Paret (Dubai, UAE):

I have flown on boeings from the days of the 707s and have always enjoyed flying on these reliable aircrafts. Some of my commercial pilot friends have commented that he boeings have a higher dispatch rate than airbus aircraft. I usually go out of my way to fly the 777 (my favorite) and 737 when I can - I still prefer the 747 to the A380. I cannot wait to fly the 787 which represents a major leap in aviation technology that thus far only Boeing is capable of doing.

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