When you book a ticket, it generally says how long your flight will be. However, it doesn’t mention the speed at which you will fly.
While knowing the speed is not crucial to your travels, it’s a nice “fun fact” to know.
So, how fast do airliners fly?
Generally speaking, jet passenger and cargo planes fly at around 900 kmph (about 560 mph), however, the speeds can vary on a variety of factors.
Continue reading to learn more.
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What Determines the Speed at Which Passenger Planes Fly?
Once a passenger plane (or any plane for that matter) is up in the air, the speeds at which it can cruise at are limited to the range between the aircraft’s stall speed below which the aircraft would not be able to generate enough lift to continue flying and the maximum operating Mach number above which some of the air around a plane’s wing would reach supersonic speeds and stress the airframe beyond its design limitations.
As a plane’s altitude increases, its stall speed increases as well since the air gets thinner and the plane must fly faster to maintain its altitude. On the other hand, while the maximum operating Mach number stays constant, the actual maximum speed a plane can fly at decreases as it climbs since the speed of sound gets slower with decreasing temperature – and thus with increasing altitude.
Because of that, the speed range at which a certain passenger plane can fly – at least relative to the air its flying in – is fairly limited.
That said, given that maximum operating Mach number can vary between different types of planes, some planes are “naturally” faster than others. Most noticeably, jets tend to be faster than props.
The other factor that plays a role in how fast a plane flies is the wind speed.
While wind speed and direction (as long as they’re constant) don’t affect the speed at which a plane flies relative to the air, they do affect the plane’s ground speed – the speed at which it travels relative to the ground.
And so, actually, oftentimes they’re the biggest variable in how long a certain flight takes.
Just as an example of how much of a difference flying into the wind and against it can make, take Qatar Airways’ route between Doha and Tokyo. The Doha to Tokyo flight takes just 9 hours or so while the return Tokyo to Doha flight can take as much as 12 hours.
How Fast Do Passenger Jets Fly?
Now that you understand what affects an airplane’s speed, and that jets tend to be faster than props, let’s take a look at how fast passenger jets actually fly.
First, let’s take a look at the cruise speeds and maximum operating Mach numbers of some of the most common jet airliner types:
- Airbus A320: Mach 0.78 cruise speed / Mach 0.82 maximum operating Mach number
- Airbus A330: Mach 0.82 / Mach 0.86
- Airbus A380: Mach 0.85 / Mach 0.89
- Boeing 737-800: Mach 0.789 / Mach 0.82
- Boeing 747-8i: Mach 0.855 / Mach 0.9
- Boeing 777-300ER: Mach 0.84 / Mach 0.89
- Bombardier CRJ-700: Mach 0.78 / Mach 0.825
- Embraer EMB-190: Mach 0.78 / Mach 0.82
As you can see, in general, narrowbody airliners like the A320 or the EMB-190 tend to cruise a bit slower slower and have a slightly lower maximum operating Mach number than larger widebody aircraft such as the A330 or the 777-300ER.
However, all of the passenger jets listed above fly at roughly similar speeds.
How Fast Do Passenger Props Fly?
For comparison, let’s take a look at the cruise speeds and maximum operating Mach numbers of the ATR 72-500 – a common turboprop airliner type. Its maximum operating Mach number is 0.55, and it typically cruises at around Mach 0.42.
Other turboprop aircraft like the Bombardier Q400 have similar characteristics.
As you can see, the speeds at which turboprop planes can fly are considerably slower than those that jet planes can fly at. That said, they are still faster than other means of transportation.
What Is the Fastest Passenger Jet?
With the baseline established, let’s take a look at what the fastest passenger jet is.
As you likely know, in the past, it used to be Concorde – the only supersonic airliner in history that operated scheduled commercial flights.
Concorde first took off on March 2, 1969, and entered into service on January 21, 1976. From then on, until October 24, 2003, it transported passengers at speeds faster than the speed of sound – mainly between Paris and New York, and London and New York – on a regular basis.
It had a maximum operating Mach number of 2.04, and would cruise at around Mach 2.02. Typically, the aircraft would cross the Atlantic in about three-and-a-half hours, sometimes faster.
Concorde also, understandably, holds the record for the fastest transatlantic passenger flight.
The record-breaking flight from New York to London took place on February 7, 1996, and with the help of a strong tailwind took just 2 hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds from take off to landing. G-BOAD, the aircraft that broke the record is currently on display in the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
With Concorde being a part of history now, though, and no other supersonic airliner anywhere in sight, these days we have to settle for subsonic speeds.
And, while most jet airliners fly at – as mentioned above – similar speeds, some do fly a bit faster than others. The one passenger plane type that regularly cruises faster than all the others is the Boeing 747.
The type generally cruises at speeds of about Mach 0.855, and depending on the variant, has a maximum operating Mach number of either 0.9 or 0.92.
In fact, the 747 is recorded to have flown even faster at times – at Mach 0.99 during some of its test flights, and even above Mach 1.0 during an emergency. It was not built to withstand those speeds for prolonged periods of time, though.
For all practical purposes, just remember that passenger jets cruise at around 900 kmph (560 mph) while turboprops cruise much slower, at around 550 kmph (340 mph).
That does not mean, though, that some aircraft types are not faster than others, and that there are no other factors – such as wind – influencing the time it will take you to get from your departure airport to your arrival airport.
Other things worth remembering might be that Concorde used to be the fastest – and the only supersonic – passenger plane until it was retired in 2003, and that currently, the fastest airliner you can fly on is the Boeing 747.
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