Why Are We Flying at Mid-20th Century Speeds?

In January of 1959 American Airlines flew the first commercial trans-continental flight. A 707 made its way from New York to Los Angeles in 5-1/2 hours. I just checked the United Airlines Web site to see how long it would take me today. UA flight 751 is set to leave Newark at 4:05 p.m. and arrive at LAX at 6:57 p.m. Adjusting for the three-hour time difference, that’s five hours and 52 minutes.


Concorde (froehlich-gera)

We live in a world in which we think technology has changed everything, what we do, how we do it and how long it takes. That apparently does not apply to flying or at least not to flight speed. And this despite the fact that there was a live commercial demonstration of the availability of the technology to speed up our flights as far back as 1976 when the Concorde went into service.

Future Tense* put together an event yesterday in Washington D.C. in which scientists, aviators, government officials and entrepreneurs tried to answer the question “Why Does It Still Take 5 Hours to Fly Cross-Country?’

There are still some technical challenges, one of which is noise. Because of the noise associated with supersonic flight there are regulations in the U.S. prohibiting supersonic jets over land. So a commercially viable transcontinental flight would have to involve a low boom option.  One of the participants raised the possibility that because of this it may at some point in the future take less time to fly from LA to Japan than from LA to New York.

But perhaps a bigger obstacle is economics. Richard Aboulafia, vice president, analysis of Teal Group, noted that airlines operate on “razor-thin” margins. (This apparently despite charging us for things like checking baggage and an inch or two of extra leg room). Because of that he said that their focus has been on fuel efficiency, not faster flights.

So there is no real demand from the airlines to go faster. And it is equally questionable whether it is a priority for the traveling consumer. The availability of multiple services on the Internet that enable price comparison has turned many fliers into bargain shoppers. Issues like convenience, even such things like onboard Wifi, are more likely to be on the average consumer’s radar screen than flight time.

It is also questionable how important actual flight time is when so much of travel time ends up being about getting to the airport, waiting to check in, waiting to go through security, waiting to board, and alas, waiting for the bags that you probably paid to check to arrive. Surely on less than cross-country flights, the actual time in the air may be insignificant compared to the time eaten up by airport over-capacity and inefficiency.

The Future Tense event did surface some interesting things that might be on the horizon. Boom Technology is a Denver-based startup with plans to build 40 passenger supersonic jets. David Lackner, North American Head of Research and Technology for Airbus, talked about creating an Uber-type of service using helicopters.  Even further afield is Lightcraft Technology which envisions the possibility of using beamed energy propulsion to propel transports.

Where there is a demand for speed is in the high end of the market. There are, as there was with the Concorde, some folks who are going to be willing to pay a premium for speed. The question is whether there are enough of them to support a commercially-viable operation. It seems clear that there are going to be faster options for flying. What isn’t clear is whether they will ever scale to the point of being available to most travelers. I didn’t hear anything that made me think that was imminent.

The Future Tense event “Why Does It Still Take 5 Hours to Fly Cross-Country” can be viewed here.

*Future Tense is a partnership between New America, Arizona State University and Slate magazine to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy.

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19 Responses to Why Are We Flying at Mid-20th Century Speeds?

  1. BroadBlogs says:

    I guess fuel efficiency is the upside here. Greater fuel efficiency means less climate change. And I heard that a small plane managed to fly around the world on solar power — so there’s hope!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Erica says:

    As someone who lives in Los Angeles but is from New York, I would LOVE a flight that took less than 5 1/2 hours to get from point A to point B. I guess it is also because I hate flying, so less time spent in the air would be a relief. However, I understand why it would not be a super high priority for the average traveller at that they might prefer wifi to a shorter trip. We’ll see what the future holds in our lifetime.


  3. Most likely because planes that fly faster are still too expensive. My ex used to fly Concorde back and forth between New York and London on a regullar basis. The other passengers were, like him, top professionals and celebrities due to the price. Am for that reason not sure how long it will take before it will be possible for us to fly faster. Another aspect we should not forget is the environmental aspect of flying. They have to find eco friendly fuel for the airplanes.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have heard about the Uber-style flights. It’s a great idea especially if you travel weekly to different areas for your job. I know of a few noncommercial flight pilots that bought their own pool jumper plans and travel for work by plane each day using the smaller airports. I agree that this will probably be more for the high-level executive expense but we shall see how it all pans out. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Phoenicia says:

    You made a valid point that however short the flight, one still must consider the time taken to go through customs and check in their luggage. I do not enjoy this aspect of travelling at all, especially when returning home.


  6. heraldmarty says:

    Well, I can tell you that the travel industry in Hawaii would just LOVE to shorten the flying time to attract more visitors. When I worked in the industry I first covered the East Coast of the US and people constantly complained about the flying time to the Islands. The interesting thing was that when I moved into international sales, I never had to deal with that argument even though the travel time was much longer. We told ourselves it was because they thought the trade-off was worth it, but I always felt it was because people in other countries actually take their vacations and consider travel all part of the package. Unlike most of us Americans who either skip vacations altogether or try to cram as much as possible into “mini” vacations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      It took me a long time to get to Hawaii and the main reason was that the Caribbean is so much closer for someone living on the East Coast. I eventually got there though and it was surely worth it no matter how long the flight.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. lenie5860 says:

    I read your opening paragraph to my husband about flight times and we were both curious as to why. Reading on the reasons became more obvious – the noise, cost(?) fuel economy etc. Actually when I read about the hassle people have to go through to fly at all I’m more surprised that flying is still in such a demand. I would think alternative transportation – like trains – would be preferred.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      I’m sure if fast, convenient trains were available people would take them. Unfortunately in the U.S. that is not the case. We might have the worst train system in the world for a rich developed country.


  8. Donna Janke says:

    I hadn’t thought about this before, but one would think we should be able to fly somewhere faster. I can understand that economics are driving current speeds. The demand may not be there. I’m not sure what the difference in speed would need to be for me to pay significantly more.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Not that I can currently afford a plane ticket to anywhere, but I can see the appeal of offering faster flights for typically longer trips. I’m okay with the time it takes to fly from coast to coast, but when it comes to overseas flights, a shorter flight that need to entail sleeping on the plane would be something I would covet if available.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I do remember hearing something about the concord blowing out people’s windows early on. Why they made it slow down before it reached the coast.
    When I was a kid, was not uncommon to hear military jets breaking the sound barrier. I think kids today do not know what a large bang sound it is.
    Technology, in some sense has not changed that much. We are still using jet engines, and although they are more advanced, such as fuel efficiency, they still are jet engines on a plane.
    It will take more radical designs to change the way we fly. Of course flying fast does not mean it will come to reality, if it did, the concord would still be flying.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. To be honest, flying time doesn’t bother me as much as time spent at the airport for check-in, baggage claim, immigration queue etc, so you made a good point there. Flying time also doesn’t bother me as much as getting to the destination safely. With all the news of planes disappearing and going down for no apparent reasons, I’d rather like advanced tech to be used in making flights safer than making them faster.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I love flying. I have no problem with flights taking a while to get to some destinations. I use that time to sleep or read a book. It would be cool to get to the west coast in 2 hours as long as the price isn’t too steep.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Andy says:

    I haven’t flown in over 10 years. I went Amtrak when I moved from New Orleans to California in late 2013: it took me two days to get to the West Coast. I don’t regret taking the train – it was cheaper than flying, I got me a lot closer to my final destination than a plane would have, and I didn’t have to deal with any TSA harassment – you can put me in the “it’d be great if trains were a lot faster” club.


  14. I’d take a train everywhere if I could, but neither the USA in general or Pittsburgh in particular have that as a viable option. Plus there’s that whole ocean thing for getting to Europe! As I’m sitting in a seaside cottage on the South coast of Wales right now, the flight time can be very draining. I’d give up wifi in a nanosecond if it meant carving hours off my flight times. Fun article, Ken.


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