The Obscured Truth of Why Your Flight Takes Longer Today than 20, 30, even 40 Years Ago

The Vickers VC10 holds the record for fastest  subsonic flight between New York and London - a record set in 1979, 37 years ago.
The Vickers VC10 holds the record for fastest subsonic flight between New York and London – a record set in 1979, 37 years ago.

If you have a regular route you fly, you’ll probably have noticed that the scheduled time for that flight has been gradually extending over the last several decades.  In my case, the short nonstop SEA-LAX-SEA flights that used to take under  2 1/2  hrs in the 1970s now are scheduled to take up to three hours – potentially 30% slower than before.  (See the Departed Flights website for old timetables – fascinating information.)

Ask anyone why, and the chances are they’ll parrot the official airline excuse – ‘The earlier flight times were overly optimistic, causing flights to frequently be delayed, so by adding extra time into the schedules, they have become more realistic and more accurately reflect how long it actually takes’.  The explanation has the benefit of sounding true, as indeed it partially is.  Some people will be more imaginative and add the comment ‘more time is wasted with congestion in the increasingly crowded skies and on the ground at airports’ and there’s again a modicum of partial truth in that.

But are these really the only reasons and complete explanation?  I suggest there’s an ugly additional factor the airlines would prefer us not to be aware of.

How long it takes to fly somewhere and how much people will pay for a shorter flight time is an interesting concept.  Of course, air travel is all about speed (it used to be all about comfort too, but that was then and this is now!).  People switched from 5+ day trans-Atlantic crossings by ship to 5+ hour trans-Atlantic crossings by plane.  On land, people choose to fly from coast to coast for the same reason.

Passengers Might Pay More to Travel a Lot Faster…..

Concorde proved that people would pay more to fly faster.  Yes, Concorde was very successful and also very profitable (see my analysis of Concorde’s profitability here – don’t believe what the airlines tell you about the tragic demise of Concorde).  But Concorde was 2.5 times faster than a regular jet.  This huge speed differential was truly impactful and allowed for even doing day trips across the Atlantic – leaving London in the morning, arriving in New York earlier than when you left London, spending much of the day in NYC, then flying home in time for a late dinner back in London again.  I remember the one time I flew Concorde – there was barely enough time to be served an extravagant meal and copious drinks during the trans-Atlantic flight!

So it seems clear that people will pay significant premiums and change their travel patterns to obtain significant savings in travel time.  Okay, that is easy to understand.  But what about smaller time savings?

Do you remember Boeing’s failed attempts at developing the plane it called the ‘Sonic Cruiser’?  This occurred in 2001 – 2002, and it was to have been a plane that would fly just below the speed of sound – about Mach 0.95 – 0.98.  This contrasted with other planes of the time that tended to cruise at about Mach 0.80 – 0.86, and so promised to be about 15% faster during the cruise phase of a flight.  The plane was projected to be about as fuel efficient as other comparable twin-engined jets, so it was sort of offering faster speed/shorter travel time with no cost premium.  Boeing had just dropped out of the ‘competition’ with Airbus to develop a super-jumbo, and it seemed Boeing was instead in effect saying ‘our new plane won’t be as big as the A380, but it will be a great deal faster’.

But the airlines showed no interest, preferring instead the concept of a new state of the art and more fuel efficient slow plane – the plane that became the 787.

I’d not seen the failure of the Sonic Cruiser as a huge loss, at the time, because on a typical say five hour flight, the plane would be speed limited for probably 30 minutes of the flight while at low altitude, maybe more, and of course at least another half hour of the scheduled ‘flight’ time would be spent taxiing and waiting on the ground or in the air, meaning that the speed differential would likely only save half an hour or so – the five hour flight would become 4.5 hours, and while that would be nice, it was hardly transformational and not something many passengers would pay appreciably more for.  When operating at more extreme ranges, a 12 hour flight might drop down to 10.5 hours, and while a 90 minute saving is nice, neither the airlines nor I thought passengers would pay much of a premium for that type of time saving either.

As a result, the airlines told Boeing ‘we’d rather fly a plane at the same speed slightly more cheaply, than a slightly faster plane at the same cost’, and nothing more has been heard of the Sonic Cruiser ever since.

….But Might Not Even Notice Flying Slower

This whole exercise may have also caused a ‘Eureka’ lightbulb to illuminate in the minds of airline executives.  If it was preferable to fly a plane at the same speed more cheaply, than to fly a plane at a faster speed for the same price, how much further could that concept be pushed?  If passengers were unwilling to pay more to go slightly faster than normal, perhaps they wouldn’t complain if the plane flew slightly slower than normal.  Some proof of that was already available – for example, some model Airbus jets were slower than comparable Boeing jets (Boeing pilots would hate getting ‘stuck behind’ a slower Airbus on a long international route with no ‘overtaking lanes’), but the slower speed was obscured in timetables and had no impact on passenger preferences.

In other words, why not throttle back their current fleets of planes and fly them all a bit more slowly (assuming this might save money).  No-one on a plane would notice, and if there was a convincing reason for a lengthening in schedule time, no-one would complain or care.

Okay, so many planes now have ‘moving map’ type displays as part of their In Flight Entertainment systems, but do you really know how fast your plane should be flying at, and do you really know if the plane is going fast or slow?  Besides which, there are all the other factors such as head and tail winds, ground delays, air traffic control delays and congestion, and so on.

I noticed on my last couple of Delta international flights that the planes seldom seemed to be flying at much faster than 500 mph in terms of ‘over the ground’ speeds, and I know, in the ‘good old days’, sometimes flights would be going at as much as 650 mph ground speed (helped by tail winds, of course) – I would get excited when on the metric km/hr display, the speed would ‘break through’ into four digit speeds of greater than 1000 km/hr (621 mph).  And, just a few weeks ago, the Lufthansa moving map display, while having some truly amazing graphics and visuals, totally omitted any mention of the airplane’s speed at all.  Why not?  Are they now embarrassed about showing this and prefer not to draw attention to it?

Now we all know that the faster we drive our cars, the less fuel efficiency we get, don’t we.  There’s a fascinating calculator on the Tesla Motors website that shows the maximum range per charge for one of their cars at different speeds.  It is interesting to plot the range vs speed for their model S 90D :


In round figures, each 5 mph change in speed increases or decreases the car’s fuel efficiency by 10%.  That’s a huge factor.  The differences for planes is not quite so profound, but still appreciable.

We also know how cost obsessed the airlines have become.  They won’t hesitate to sacrifice passenger convenience and comfort any time they can save a penny.  Whether it is one less lettuce leaf on the salad, pillows, blankets, magazines, the right to take three 70lb suitcases with you for free, or pretty much anything else, these days it is either no longer offered or now sold at a huge price premium instead of formerly being included for free.

Who Benefits – and By How Much – From Slower Flights

So how long do you think it was until someone said ‘Hey, if we fly our planes a little slower, we can save on fuel and boost our profits’?  What is a more perfect cost saving measure than that – it doesn’t require any changes to the planes or airports or anything, and with a bit of luck, the passengers will never even notice it.  JetBlue said, back in 2008, that adding an almost imperceptible 2 minutes to each of their flights saved it $13.6 million – a saving that flipped directly to a $13.6 million reduction in their loss for the year (their $23 million operational loss would have otherwise been $36 million – that’s a huge difference).  And that was back in 2008, who knows what the implications, to JetBlue and every other airline, is today.

At the same time, Northwest calculated it saved 162 gallons of fuel, each way, on Paris-Minneapolis flights, by adding 8 minutes to their flying time (reducing speed from a 542 mph average speed to 532 mph).

Have you noticed your plane is flying slower than it used to?  Probably you’ve not noticed this – few of us ever ponder the actual speed the plane flies at.  But equally probably, your plane almost certainly is flying slower today than it formerly was.  For example, a flight between New York and Houston takes about 3 hrs 50 minutes; back in 1973, it was taking 2 hrs 40 minutes.  That’s a huge difference, both in absolute terms and in percentage terms.

This article has various examples of airlines slowing their flights down, but falls into the sucker trap of equating ‘airlines saving money on fuel’ with ‘airlines reducing their airfares’.  With airline profitability at an all time high, and airline flight speeds slower than ever before, there’s no evidence to suggest that our gift to the airlines of spending more time on their ever-more uncomfortable planes is being matched by any reduction in airfare at all.

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