Why Don't Planes Fly Any Faster Than They Did In The 1960s?

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."

  • The Concorde Was One Of The First Commercial Planes To Break The Sound Barrier

    Between 1976 and 2003, there was one commercial jet on the market that could reach speeds up to twice the speed of sound. The Concorde, a British- and French-owned jet, could transport passengers from London to New York in just three hours.

    Ultimately, however, many European countries and the US banned the flying of supersonic planes in each nation's respective airspace, which resulted in further constrictions about where these planes could fly and the clientele they could reach.

    Though the Concorde was fast, it was prohibitively expensive for the average traveler. The high price tag, plus new air space regulations regarding supersonic vehicles, essentially grounded the plane for the foreseeable future. 

  • Flying Close To The Speed Of Sound Presents Multiple Problems

    Technological advances in air travel appear to be few and far between - at least regarding trip duration. The Concorde was an outlier in this respect, yet jet engines are generally considered less practical and safe for commercial use.

    Flying at or close to the speed of sound (761 miles per hour), far outside of the 400-600 mph range that is most efficient for today’s commercial planes, puts airlines and passengers at risk due in part to the power of the supersonic airwaves emitted.

    In addition to the safety concerns, supersonic aircraft also present an annoyance to people on the ground. In 1964, the US military conducted an experiment in Oklahoma City, deliberately bombarding the town with supersonic waves. The experiment's intent was to see what people would tolerate. After six months, residents had filed more than 15,000 complaints and 10,000 claims of damage.