AvGeekery for beginners: How to tell Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s apart

Dec 28, 2020

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These two aircraft are the two most modern designs to enter the market in the last decade. Even the most jaded AvGeek will get excited at the prospect of a trip on the Dreamliner or the A350. They’re made by two different plane makers: Boeing and Airbus, respectively.

Each is gorgeous in its own right, from an aesthetic and design perspective.

A Japan Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner arrives at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, on Feb. 2, 2015. (Photo by Christoph Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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The A350: Two Models

An Airbus A350-900 at the 2017 Dubai Air Show. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

 

Related: How to tell the new A350s apart

The A350 comes in two models, the 900 and the 1000. The 1000 model is longer than the 900 — but length is difficult to gauge unless you’re comparing them side by side. Like the Boeing 777, the A350-1000 features three sets of two wheels on the main landing gear. In contrast, the A350-900 has only two sets of two wheels, like the Dreamliner. That’s the easiest way to spot the difference between the 900 and the 1000.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Three Models

Virgin Atlantic’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, aptly named G-VNEW. (Image courtesy Virgin Atlantic)

 

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner comes in three different models, the -8, -9 and -10. The difference between the aircraft is simply the length, with the 787-10 being 38 feet longer than the 787-8. The easiest way to tell the difference? The Boeing 787-10 has more windows between the wing and the cockpit than the 787-8 or -9.

Related: What are the different types of Dreamliners?

The Wingtips

A Delta Air Lines Airbus A350-900 aircraft lands at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on July 2, 2020. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

 

The easiest way to spot the A350 in the wild? Their beautiful, stark upward-curving wingtips. From the side profile, you can tell they are upward curving, but the curve looks subtle. Head-on, however, they have a very distinctive curvature. In this way, they almost create an optical illusion: all of a sudden — wham — and that wingtip has a sharp curve upwards. The point, of course, is to reduce wingtip vortices.

In contrast, the Boeing 787 has raked wingtips. Boeing designed a wing so aerodynamically efficient that the added weight of winglets or wingtips would outweigh the fuel savings from reducing vortices. Still, the Boeing 787 wing is unique, particularly when gazing out at it from inside the airplane, or from head-on. They seem to trail upwards and backwards just so.

Related: First look inside Air France’s Airbus A350

Cathay Pacific A350
(Photo by JIMMOYHT/Shutterstock)

The Nose

(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The nose of the Dreamliner is very modern looking, and makes a sleek upward curve to the fuselage. It looks like an airplane version of a bullet train. In contrast, the A350 is less sharp; indeed, it is “derived from the A380,” Airbus says, and even underwent a nose job during the design phase to increase the radius near the top of the fuselage.

Related: Why pilots love the Dreamliner

Qatar Airways A350 in the sky
A Qatar Airways A350 in the sky. (Photo by Vytautas Kielaitis/Shutterstock)

The Cockpit Windows

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner shot for Boeing.

From the front, count the windows. The Boeing 787 is unique among wide-bodied aircraft; it has only four sleek cockpit windows, an innovation from Boeing in terms of weight reduction.

Not to be outdone, when the A350 was released, Airbus’ marketing materials showed a sleekly curved cockpit window that looked like a single piece of glass — something designed but never implemented in the actual aircraft. In reality, six windows form a “frowning brow,” or a squiggly letter “m,” and the windows themselves are surrounded by a black border. To match the marketing materials, Leeham News says that Airbus surrounded the cockpit windows with a painted black border. Leeham also speculates that because the windows are changed from the outside, the black border helps prevents dings to the aircraft livery. This border is referred to as its “raccoon eyes.”

Related: Air France boosting its orders of A350s

And it’s becoming an Airbus identifier. The A320neo and A330neo also have raccoon eyes. As more of these aircraft come online, the cockpit windows will help you determine whether the aircraft is an Airbus or a Boeing, but not between variants such as the A350 and A330 in particular, which look similar in this regard.

In a word, the cockpit windows on the A350 are badass.

The Engine Nacelle

A close-up view of the engine and landing gear of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

 

The Boeing 787 sports the GEnx engine, and the nacelle has a sawtooth pattern on the rear portion, called chevrons. The point is to reduce noise and eliminate excess sound insulation. Other than the raked wings themselves, this is the easiest way to spot a Boeing 787 in the wild.

The Name is On The Dreamliner

The tail of a United Dreamliner. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

 

At the back of the fuselage, the word Dreamliner is printed prominently. I wish other Boeing aircraft would do the same. It seems like an easy marketing exercise for Boeing, but the airlines also want to control the look and feel of their own livery, and likely do not want to blatantly advertise for their makers.

A350
  • Distinct, upward-curving wingtips
  • “Raccoon eyes” cockpit windows
  • A350-1000 has three sets of two wheels for main landing gear
Boeing 787
  • Serrated engine nacelles
  • Bullet train-like sleek nose
  • Wings that curve up more than most
  • Four cockpit windows as opposed to six on every other aircraft

 

Related: Review of an Air France A350 flight

A British Airways Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

 

If you want more AvGeek coverage check out our other posts on identifying aircraft in the “wild”: How to tell commercial aircraft apart, how to tell Boeing 757s, 767s and 777s apart, how to tell Boeing 747s apart, and how to tell Airbus A330s and A340s apart.

A Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner test plane is presented on the tarmac of Le Bourget on June 18, 2017, on the eve of the opening of the International Paris Air Show. (Eric Piermont, AFP via Getty Images)

 

Related: American’s Boeing 767s, 757s among 80 planes that won’t fly again after the pandemic

Additional reporting by Clint Henderson.

Featured image of a Delta Airbus A350 by Chris Rank/Rank Studios

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