In the Battle of the New 737 and A320, Passengers Won’t See Much New at All

An artist rendering of the Boeing 737 MAX Courtesy Boeing

Boeing says its new 737 MAX, the future replacement for its workhorse 737, reached 2,000 orders faster than any model in company history. Of course, rival Airbus has a new version of its top-selling A320 on sale. And that plane, the A320neo, has collected more orders to date and will enter service late next year, two years before the first MAX.

Both airplanes are being sold in large numbers because of their greater fuel efficiencies and commonalities with the models they’ll replace—factors that will save airlines enormous piles of cash. Yet for the passenger wedged into 22E on either plane, the brand-new version will look, sound, and feel just like the companies’ current models. For the next generation of 737s, the biggest change in the passenger cabin will be Boeing’s Sky Interior, which is now sold as an option for 737 customers. That version (video) offers larger overhead bins that fold up into the cabin, various “mood” lighting options, and sculpted walls and a ceiling that make the cabin appear more spacious.

At Airbus, expect to see even less change than that in the back of the plane. Airbus says the A320neo, which offers two choices of new engines, has racked up almost 2,650 orders. The new plane is 95 percent similar to the existing A320 but with new engines that reduce harmful emissions and are 15 percent more fuel efficient. “We’re not redesigning the A320. It’s pretty damn good just the way it is,” John Leahy, Airbus’s chief commercial officer, says in a promotional video touting the A320neo’s fuel efficiency. He says the company doesn’t believe new technologies being researched will be ready before the mid-2020s. That’s when Airbus is likely to contemplate an all-new design to replace the A320 family.

Single-aisle jets that can fly about 3,000 nautical miles are the largest chunk of the airplane market, with the 737 and A320 both popular at airlines worldwide. And both Airbus and Boeing are working to increase production of their current models before the introduction of their new versions.

Boeing says the new 737, which will come in three versions, will burn 14 percent less fuel and fly farther than the current models, and offer total operating costs that are 8 percent lower than the competing Airbus plane (a claim Airbus disputes). Boeing has almost 2,000 orders for the larger -8 and -9 versions, with only 57 for the smallest -7 version. Boeing spokeswoman Lauren Penning says the company sees a future market for the smallest 737 MAX and expects more orders for it.

The first A320neo is scheduled for delivery in the fourth quarter of 2015. Southwest Airlines is in line to get the first 737 MAX in the third quarter of 2017. Large 737 MAX buyers include American Airlines, United Airlines, Lion Air, and Flydubai. The A320neo has been ordered by airlines including American, EasyJet, China Southern, Tiger Airways, Virgin America, and Hawaiian Airlines.

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