Why Flying Is Slower Now Than It Was 20 Years Ago

Jet plane enters runway at a airport.
Photo: Björn Forenius/Getty Images

Flying just ain’t what it used to be.

If you’ve got the sneaking suspicion that you’re spending more time on your flights than you did “back in the day,” you’re probably right. Flight travel has actually gotten slower over the last few decades for a simple, and entirely not surprising reason: slower speeds saves money.

Cruising speeds for commercial airliners now range between about 480 and 510 knots, compared to 525 knots for the Boeing 707 during the 1960’s, according to a 2014 article from the MIT School Of Engineering.

“The main issue is fuel economy. Going faster eats more fuel per passenger-mile,” said Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Mark Drela. “This is especially true with the newer ‘high-bypass’ jet engines with their large-diameter front fans.”

According to Drela, today’s airplane builders actually favor a smaller, lighter, and therefore slower aircraft that peaks its fuel efficiency at slower speeds. (Cars also become more efficient at slower speeds on highways.)

According to a story from NBC News in 2008, JetBlue saved about $13.6 million a year in jet fuel by adding just under two minutes to its flights. And one Northwest Airlines flight from Paris to Minneapolis saved 162 gallons of fuel, saving the airline $535 by adding only eight minutes to the flight.

These days many pilots use flight route planners to map out the most fuel efficient route. So, sadly, your flight from New York to Los Angeles is going to be a bit longer than your parents’ was. We suggest you bring a book to fill out those extra minutes.

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