Travel

Flight Times Were Shorter in the 1960s, But There's A Good Reason

One cool thing about technology is that it's always improving: the phone in your pocket is orders of magnitude more powerful than the computer that put a man on the moon, for example. With that rapid march of progress, this might sound surprising: between the same destinations, a flight in the 1960s and '70s took less time than it does today. Why do planes travel more slowly these days? The short answer: it's more fuel efficient, and the price of fuel is one thing that hasn't improved over the decades.

The Bottom Line At 30,000 Feet

Between 1976 and 2003, British Airways and Air France passengers could take a supersonic airplane called the Concorde, which traveled over twice speed of sound. While a flight from London to New York City takes around 8.5 hours in a normal plane, the Concorde could make the trip in half the time. It was a luxury option that was incredibly expensive because of how many gallons of gas the plane required to reach that speed. And given the fact that inflation-adjusted fuel costs nearly doubled between 1976 and 2014, the Concorde would be borderline unaffordable for even the wealthiest today.

Higher fuel costs make it essential that airlines travel at the most fuel efficient speed in order to offer affordable tickets while turning a profit. There are two ways fuel helps keep planes aloft: by generating lift, and by reducing drag. If you fly too slowly, you have to spend extra fuel trying to keep the plane off the ground. If you fly too fast, you'll spend too much fuel pushing through drag. The happy medium that provides the best fuel efficiency for a plane as big as a Boeing 747, then, is about 540 mph (870 kph). Considering that the speed of sound is 767 mph (1,235 kph), that's quite a slog compared to the ol' Concorde.

What's A Few Extra Hours?

There's another less obvious reason for our slower air travel, however. Most of us don't jump on a plane and travel all around the world on a regular basis for two reasons: one, we have jobs, and two, it's expensive to fly. Most people's biggest obstacle to traveling is paying for it, not the time it takes to get there. Most Chicagoans would jump at a free plane ticket to New Zealand, not turn it down because it's 22 hours to Queenstown. Airlines know this, which is why their focus is on lighter planes, the most fuel-efficient path possible, and simply staying on schedule.

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