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As nice as it is to enjoy a luxurious flight in business or first class, most of us would rather just get to our destination as soon as possible. And while we’re still waiting for the return of supersonic passenger flights, there are already some differences in the speeds of modern sub-sonic jets.
Finding the Fastest
If you’re looking for the fastest jet possible, where do you start? First, let’s exclude military aircraft such as the rocket-powered X-15 that once reached Mach 6.7 (or 4,519 miles per hour), or the jet-powered SR-71 that reached Mach 3.3 (or 2,193 mph). I’ll also leave out former military aircraft that are currently operated by civilians.
What’s left are three kinds of civilian aircraft. First, there are planes like the Concorde that are no longer in operation. Then, there are commercial passenger aircraft like the Boeing 747 that are currently in service. Finally, there are private passenger aircraft, also known as general aviation airplanes, that can reach some impressive speeds.
Note that it’s important to distinguish between an aircraft’s cruising speed and its maximum possible speed. Since maximum speed is only reached by test pilots under highly controlled conditions, I’ll compare each aircraft’s operational cruising speed.
The Fastest Commercial Passenger Airliners That Are Now Out of Service
1. The Concorde — No surprise here. The Anglo-French Concorde was designed for flight up to Mach 2.2 (2.2 times the speed of sound), but it cruised at “just” Mach 2.02 to save fuel and prolong the life of its skin. The aircraft was in service from 1976 to 2003, but you can still visit the Concorde flight simulator in London.
2. Tupolev TU-144 — At Mach 2.0, the Russian version of the Concorde was just slightly slower, but nowhere near as successful. It only undertook 55 passenger flights before it was retired due to safety concerns.
3. Convair 880 — This airliner was designed to cruise at 615 mph, or about Mach .89. To most eyes, this plane looks like the classic Boeing 707, and just 65 were produced between 1959 and 1962. But it did see service with a wide range of carriers including Alaska, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Japan Airlines and TWA. However, its most famous operator was none other than Elvis Presley.
The Fastest Commercial Passenger Airliners That Are Currently Operated
1. Boeing 747-8i — The Queen of Skies can reach Mach 0.86, but it’s only in service with three major commercial operators: Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa.
2. Boeing 747-400 — This is the best-selling version of the 747, and at Mach 0.855, its cruise speed is just shy of the current model’s. Between 1988 and 2005, 694 of this model were built, and more than 200 remain in service with carriers like Asiana, British Airways, China Airlines, Korean Air and Lufthansa. United and Delta currently operate this model, but their 747-400s are scheduled to be retired later this year.
3. Airbus A380 — This super-jumbo has a cruising speed of Mach 0.85. More than 200 have been delivered since 2007, but with few recent sales, its future isn’t very clear at this time.
4. Boeing 787 — Boeing’s latest all-new design has a cruising speed of Mach 0.85. Of the plane’s 1,200-plus orders, more than 500 have been delivered since its introduction in 2011.
5. Boeing 777 — This efficient, wide-body twin-engine jet has a typical cruise speed of Mach 0.84. More than 1,400 have been delivered since the aircraft began service in 1995.
The Fastest Private Passenger Jets
1. Cessna Citation X+ — If you look closely, you might notice that this aircraft’s engines appear just a little out of proportion to the rest of aircraft. That’s the first giveaway that you’re dealing with the hot rod of the skies. With a maximum speed of Mach 0.935, it’s the world’s fastest business jet. However, it costs about $22 million to purchase new.
2. Gulfstream G650 — I’ve (naturally) already placed my order for this $65 million aircraft, which has a max speed of Mach 0.925, but only reaches its 7,000-mile range at more pedestrian speeds. It seats 11 to 18 passengers and can be equipped with a full kitchen.
3. Dassault Falcon 7X — With three engines, this French private jet looks a bit like a miniature Boeing 727, yet it can reach Mach 0.90. It’s perfect for flying 15 of your friends halfway around the world, so long as you have $52 million to spare.
4. Bombardier Global 6000 — At Mach 0.89, this aircraft can still cruise faster than any current commercial jetliner. However, you might be put off by the fact that it’s based on the Canadair Regional Jet, which isn’t the most glamorous airliner.
How much time are you really saving?
There’s no doubt that the slowest part of any airline trip is the wait at the airport. Using services like TSA PreCheck and CLEAR can help, but most of us will still end up arriving at the airport at least an hour before our scheduled departure and hanging out for a while after landing to collect baggage. By flying in a private aircraft, you could shave huge amounts of time from a commercial flight, even if the aircraft itself isn’t as fast as a commercial one.
But for those of us who can’t quite afford to travel by private jet, is there any real difference in the speed of one airliner over another? The most popular commercial passenger aircraft ever built is the Boeing 737. The Next Generation models that are currently being produced have a typical cruise speed of Mach 0.78, and a maximum speed of 0.82. These numbers are nearly identical to its counterpart, the Airbus A320 series.
To see how these aircraft compare to faster passenger jets when it comes to actual trip time, I looked at FlightAware. On March 22, a Cessna Citation X flew from New Jersey’s Teterboro airport to Los Angeles’ Van Nuys in just 5 hours and 27 minutes. I then found a Virgin America Airbus A320 that departed from JFK to LAX at a similar time and took 5 hours and 43 minutes. That’s just a 16-minute differential, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things.
I looked at a longer route that’s operated by both a new 747-8i and an older Airbus A340-600 that cruises at about Mach 0.82. Lufthansa operates a Boeing 747-8i between Frankfurt and Johannesburg each day at nearly the same time that South African Airways flies an Airbus A340-600. Sure enough, the Boeing generally flies the route about 20-30 minutes faster than the Airbus. That’s significant, but I suspect most travelers will choose their flight based on other factors such as price, schedule, and service quality (not to mention the availability of award seats).
Instead of trying to choose a flight based on the speed of the aircraft, it’s probably best to just be amazed that we can regularly travel the world at over 500 miles per hour. Until supersonic passenger flights return, those in a hurry will be better off trying to speed through the airport, fly non-stop and take the most direct route for connecting flights, rather than worrying about which airplane is the fastest. That said, it is awesome to see just how fast aircraft have become!
What’s the fastest aircraft you’ve ever flown on?
Featured image of the Citation X+ courtesy of Cessna.
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