This question is as old as aviation itself: some even say it came first.
When the Wright brothers invented the airplane, their first question was “What is an airplane?” and their second was “Would a Boeing or an Airbus be better?”
Boeing pilots love their saying “If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going!” To which Airbus pilots usually respond with “two words... tray table! (because they don’t have a catchy little phrase, but do have a sidestick and a nice tray table to eat their dinner off.)
We could start bringing out facts and figures, comparing fuel burn, speed, handling, capabilities... Airbus has had fly-by-wire longer, but Boeing has been around longer. The 777 has more powerful engines, but the A380 has twice as many. The A320 variants generally have a better range than their 737 counterparts, but the 737-800 beats the A320-200 on MTOW. The A350 has greater max thrust than the 787-10 and its range is better, but the 787 is considered one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft on the market and is cheaper than the A350...
I am just getting started and frankly I’m a little bored already, because the truth is - neither is better! Boeing offers airplanes with some amazing features, Airbus does too. Some pilots prefer the look of one or the handling of another, but at the end of the day neither is necessarily “better."
For many of you who are considering moving into airlines once opportunities arise, this question might be on your mind. And there is a valid question to be asked there: not because one is better than the other, but because the airlines who operate them - and the career progression it will offer you - might vary. If you are in a position of having to buy a type-rating, then the consideration might be even more pertinent.
So, let’s look at it from a different angle.
European airlines seem to still favour the Airbus range, but only by a small margin: both the A320 family and the 737 family are common across Europe. Of course, so are ATRs, Embraers and various other types. In Asia and the Middle East, the spread seems fairly even, while the US tends to operate more of their homegrown Boeings.
Both manufacturers seem to roughly keep up with each other; with Boeing relatively recently bringing out the 787 Dreamliner and the 737-max, (which were not without issues) but they also have their new 777X coming up for delivery imminently and it promises great things.
Airbus have seen their A350 orders rising, and, with their A330-Neo, they set an all-time annual record in 2019 handing over 863 aircraft compared to Boeing’s ‘meagre’ 380 deliveries. However, Covid had seen the grounding of nearly all the worldwide fleet of A380s, and Airbus are already wrapping up production for the A380 aircraft.
Airbus and Boeing cater across the markets - from short haul and regional, all the way up to wide body aircraft for the International airlines, with a few corporate and business aircraft thrown in for good measure.
The one big benefit of having an Airbus rating on your licence is the ability to CCQ another Airbus rating. When you do a type rating onto a new aircraft, it is generally a lengthy course with ground school, technical exams and then a good number of simulator sessions before your check. But Airbus cockpits, and the way the aircraft function, is common across all their types. So, in theory, if you can fly a 320 you can fly a 380; and if you are rated on the 330, then the 350 is a common rating and will also be endorsed on your licence. So, moving between one Airbus type to another is relatively easy. However, Boeing have started offering the same with their 787s and 777s.
Additionally, while short haul airlines usually prefer type-rated and experienced on-type pilots, major airlines do not necessarily expect you to already have experience on a wide body and, instead, generally ask for a minimum number of hours on a type over a certain weight. The focus is on the flying experience and the exposure you have gained, over what it is specifically on. (This varies between airlines and, with the current situation, many airlines might change requirements, so it is hard to guess at what might get you where.)
Your career path might vary depending on which aircraft type you opt to start on, but it is unlikely it will permanently cement your career in one direction. I started flying the Avro RJ85, and never touched an Airbus until I was employed on the A330 (that was a steep learning curve, believe me). Now I fly the A380. I have colleagues who flew the A320 and then moved straight onto a 777, and I have other colleagues who started on the 737, gained command, then moved as a direct entry captain on an A320 with another airline...
So, what am I getting at? Well, if you are in the fortunate position of being able to choose between types or airlines, my view would be - don’t choose based on the aircraft, or the projected career path you think you want. Choose based on the airline - the lifestyle, work life balance, career progression and package that they offer. Do some research, chat to other pilots working there and ask what their experiences have been. Make a decision that way.
And don’t limit yourself to Airbus or Boeing. Yes, they might mean a quicker path to long haul, but long haul is not for everyone - flying regional aircraft, operating turboprops, flight instruction, general aviation... it is all different, but just as valuable and just as an enjoyable type of piloting of that is the route you choose to follow.
Both Boeing and Airbus are great aircraft to fly, but they are not the only options, and depending on your preferences they might not even be the best options. What’s more, something that Covid has recently shown all of us is that your career is always going to be subject to a little outside influence! So, take the opportunities as they come, work hard to forge your own career path and always stay open to change.
Once you have a wealth of experience across many types of aircraft, then and only then will you really be able to say which you prefer and why. So, when it comes down to the age-old question (because Boeing and Airbus pilots do seem to go on about this a lot), my answer is that both are great. Neither is best.
(Except the A380 because it’s the biggest.)
Rebecca is a senior first officer, operating the A380, and one of our pilot mentors. Visit our 'Supported' page to read more about Rebecca, and the support she and our other resilient pilot mentors can offer.