The company I fly for was recently looking for a new wide-body aircraft to replace our aging and inefficient DC-10s. The contenders were the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330.
Some of us were having a friendly discussion about this when I mentioned that I wouldn't mind flying the A330. One of the guys actually snapped at me "I think we should buy an American aircraft!"
Whoa! Easy there!
First off, I'm not the one writing the (very large) check for this. Secondly, while I'm all for buying American, we're in business to make a profit - not to subsidize a particular aircraft manufacturer. I want us to buy whichever plane is going to make us the most money. Waving the flag in my face doesn't put food on the table.
Note that we ultimately bought the 767. We already had 757s on the property and there is a lot of parts commonality between the two. They're also a common type-rating, so I'm already qualified to fly the 767. Makes perfect sense to me.
I still wouldn't have minded the A330. Heck, for what they're paying me, if they want to buy Tupolevs I'll start learning Cyrillic.
Having flown both Boeing and Airbus products, read on and I'll give you my impression from where I sit.
First off, I need to thank VTCC73 for his insight on the A320 and A330s. His rather extensive resume boasts 23,000!!! flying hours in everything from the 707 to the A330, with a sampling of everything in between. He gave me such an extensive education on the Airbus fly-by-wire system that I'm saving it in case I ever do have to train on the A330 someday.
My experience isn't quite as impressive but I've flown 4 Boeing products: B-52, KC-135 (707), 727 and 757. I've flown the Airbus A300 and A310, an A310 just being a shortened A300. Both have conventional flight controls. Fly-by-wire wasn't introduced until the A320.
A lot of people are a bit apprehensive about getting on an Airbus. "If it ain't a Boeing I ain't going" as even I used to say. Plus there's the inherent American dislike of all things French.
Boeing has been around for a long time and has a well-earned reputation for building sturdy, well designed aircraft. There are many legendary stories of B-17s limping home with half the tail shot off, the B-52 soldiers on 60 years after it first flew and the 727 was as rugged a jet airliner as ever flew. Back when Douglas was their main competitor, pilots would say "Boeing builds airliners, Douglas builds character".
Airbus doesn't have quite the legendary background that Boeing does. They've only been around since the late 1960s, although some of the parent companies have been around a lot longer. Airbus is largely a consortium of French and German companies. The British were also involved at various times. Hawker Siddeley designed the wing for the A300 and BAE had part ownership for a while. I think the Dutch (Fokker) have even been involved from time to time.
Both companies receive government subsidy in the form of military contracts. One reason Boeing gave us a sweet deal on 767s is they wanted to keep the production line open while waiting for the 767-based tanker to start production.
So how do the planes compare?
For starters, they both use pretty much the same engines from the same manufacturers. General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce (my favorite) all supply engines to both companies. A lot of 737s have CFM engines, which are a joint venture of GE and a (gasp!) French company.
From an aerodynamic and a systems standpoint they're both pretty similar as well. Air molecules and electrons don't know if they're in Seattle or Toulouse. The formula for building a cost-effective jet airliner is pretty much the same everywhere. They look about the same because the same equations went into designing them.
I'll compare the 757/767 with the A300/310 since I've flown both and they're both from roughly the same generation.
I talked about the A300 in detail here A300. I'll give the 757 its due in a later diary.
Both the Boeing and the Airbus have 3 generators (2 engine-driven plus 1 on the APU). Both have 3 main hydraulic systems plus a RAT (Ram Air Turbine) for backup. Both use a combination of hydraulic powered ailerons and spoilers for roll control. The landing gear and brakes are similar. The avionics are comparable, which is surprising since the A300 entered service almost 10 years before the 757.
Both have a high degree of automation. Both have "glass" cockpits and FMS (Flight Management System). Both have advanced autopilots with auto-throttles. Both can auto-land.
The automation on the Airbus was a little more intrusive in that it would physically try to keep me from doing stupid things with the airplane.
For example, if I tried to stall the A300, "Alpha Floor" would engage the auto-throttles and push the power up to prevent the stall. The Boeing would merely warn me of the impending stall but it wouldn't do anything about it. Since I have no business stalling an airliner, it doesn't really bother me that Airbus would try to help me out. If I've ever reached that point, something's gone horribly wrong and I'll take all the help I can get.
Overall I'd give the edge to the 757, but I'd say that's mostly because it's a newer design. Ten years is a long time in the world of electronics, and the systems are a bit more intuitive.
Airbus was the first to use composites structurally and also the first to introduce fly-by-wire. Boeing has gone down the same path. The 777 is a fly-by-wire aircraft, as is the 787. A 777 still has a yoke (probably to keep old-timers like me happy) but it's not connected to anything. Likewise Boeing is using more composites in their aircraft. The 787 is almost entirely made from composites.
Fly-by-wire makes some people uneasy. I've never flown an FBW aircraft but the people that do seem to like it. I downloaded the systems manual for our 777s, and the description of the fly-by-wire system was almost identical to how the A320/A330 was described to me. Once again, Seattle electrons work the same as Toulouse electrons. I'll go into more detail about how FBW works in a later diary.
VTCC73 gave me so much information that it really deserves to stand on its own - I can't do it justice here.
From a safety standpoint, both have the same amount of redundancy and both have provisions to maintain basic aircraft control even if all electrics are lost. Both incorporate the same degree of "envelope protection", which is a fancy term for "keeping me from doing something stupid with the airplane".
The safety records of both companies are pretty comparable. It's hard to get an apples to apples comparison, but the A320 family has had a hull-loss rate of .29 per million departures. It's closest Boeing equivalent, the 737-600 thru 737-900, has an almost identical loss rate of .28 (source Boeing safety study 2011).
Generally speaking, jet airliners are very safe and the newer ones are safer than the older ones. Even my beloved 727 had a loss rate of 1.21, several times that of its replacements, and it was considered to be one of the safest planes of its day. The early jets had loss rates 5-8 times that!
You're much safer getting on an A340 or 777 today than you would have been in a DC-8 or 707 back when Pan Am and TWA ruled the airways. So don't be afraid to get on either one.