Anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airliner will be familiar with a very specific sequence of events: boarding, stowing luggage, shuffling over to a tightly packed seat with little leg room, buckling up, and listening to a well-rehearsed flight attendant read off all the rules and regulations you’ll need to follow. At this point, you aren’t even in the air yet, but you’re already asking yourself, “Why can’t planes get faster?”
The average commercial plane flies at speeds of up to 500 knots (about 575 mph) while reaching altitudes between 31,000 and 38,000 feet (about 5.9 to 7.2 miles above sea level). And these numbers have been essentially the same since the Golden Age of Flying in the 1960s, when air transportation became more accessible both in price and convenience. In some cases, the speed of commercial planes has actually slowed down.
Despite numerous technological advances and upgrades to aircraft, a trip that took an hour in the 1960s still takes around an hour today, if not longer. The rising price of fuel and tickets have played a part, but there are actually a number of reasons why planes aren’t faster today than they were decades ago.
Pilots Aim For Greater 'Efficiency,' Which Doesn’t Mean Faster Speeds
For any given commercial airline flight, the optimal speed, cruising altitude, and flight path are all selected based on one thing: efficiency.
To many people, efficiency means doing something better and faster, but for pilots who are navigating the nearly 5.3 million square miles of airspace above the United States, efficiency more often than not means being more economical. While a pilot’s main goal is to get their passengers from point A to point B safely, they must also consider the most economic - or efficient - use of the fuel they have available on board.
With the help of various computer monitoring systems that measure the air pressure and wind currents in the sky, pilots select the highest speed for the lowest fuel cost. This "golden ratio" doesn’t typically add up to a shorter flight time.
In fact, in the 1960s, the average cruising speed for an airplane was close to 525 knots, while today it has settled between 480 and 510 knots.
There Isn’t Enough Consumer Demand For Faster Flights
Though more powerful jet engines exist, it is unlikely they will be added to future aircraft to speed up arrival times. The most prevalent reason for this has to do with the fact that adding such an expensive engine would dramatically increase ticket prices and the costs of flying in general.
More powerful engines require exponentially more gas than those used now, and would necessitate fewer passengers per plane. At this time, there isn’t a consumer base large enough to facilitate this type of market change.
Rising Fuel Costs Made Airlines Revisit The Speeds Of Their Aircraft
Due to steady increases in fuel costs over the years, airlines worldwide have had to reevaluate their flight protocols to maximize their bottom line. The best way to do this without raising ticket prices is to dramatically reduce the amount of fuel burned in a given flight.
By adding just two minutes to an estimated flight time, many airlines have learned they can travel at slightly slower speeds and save millions of dollars’ worth of fuel in the process. Though conserving fuel benefits an airline and allows it to spend money elsewhere, such as labor, the flights themselves get slower as a result.
Airlines Build Time For Delays Into Flight Patterns
When it comes to using any type of public transportation, be it a train or an airbus, punctuality is one of the most important and unpredictable aspects of the journey. And when it comes to air travel, all the different variables from technical malfunctions to changing weather conditions can impact whether a plane arrives on time or is delayed.
In an effort to tackle these unforeseeable complications, airlines have started using a technique known as “schedule padding,” which essentially involves adding a few extra minutes to anticipated flight times in order to adjust customers' expectations.
This way, if there are any issues, customers still feel as though they are arriving on time, and if everything goes as planned, customers are pleased when they arrive "early."