Why Hasn't Air Travel Increased in Speed?

Air Travel Today: Flight Speed

We all know that airport security procedures have increased the time it takes to board a plane after arriving at the airport. But what most people do not know is that the average time spent in the air on a given flight has also increased in the past 30 years. It is true. In a world where everything seems to have sped up exponentially, air travel has actually slowed.

Airlines often pad their flight times in order to increase their on-time percentages, but that has little to do with the increase in the amount of time it takes to go from point A to point B. Padded flight time estimates allow for congestion on the runways and in the air as planes stack up waiting to land.

Technology has long been available for faster planes. The first manned aircraft in controlled, level flight to break the sound barrier took place in 1947, and the first Concorde took flight in 1969. Two new supersonic designs were unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June 2011. So why do today’s flights take so long? There are three main reasons.

1. Fuel Costs

Fuel costs account for up to 40% of airline operating revenue. Just as driving your car faster consumes more fuel per mile, flying a plane faster increases fuel consumption. That is because even slight increases in speed greatly increase drag, and more drag means more fuel consumption. A plane doubles fuel consumption for a 40% increase in speed. High fuel costs dictate that airlines use speeds that maximize fuel economy.

2. Longer Flights

One simple reason why the average flight takes longer than it used to is that there are more long-haul flights than ever; those bring up the average flight time. With low-cost carriers getting into long-haul and international flights, more people are able to take trips to more distant destinations.

3. More Private Jets

Private planes used to be mostly propeller and turboprop planes, but today there are many more private jets. Jets fly at the same altitudes as commercial airlines, and commercial flights have to slow down when they get behind someone’s private jet.

So, why not use supersonic planes, like the Concorde? Those produce around one-third more emissions than traditional jets, and they consume a lot of fuel, which is just too expensive to be practical today. Another reason is that supersonic flights are not allowed over land because of the damaging (and annoying) effects of sonic booms.

But there is hope for shorter flight times in the near future, thanks to upgrades in air traffic control systems. Radar-based air traffic control systems, which date back to the 1940s, require that planes descend in “steps” as they prepare to land. But the next generation of satellite air traffic control (called NexGen) allows continuous descent approaches, which will save time, fuel consumption and carbon emissions. NexGen will also allow more direct flight paths, rather than today’s routes, which must proceed from one radar station to the next.


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Published: August 1, 2011