British Airways 747 Sets New Transatlantic Speed & Time Record

Filed Under: British Airways

Obviously transatlantic flight speeds can never compete with the Concorde days, but in a subsonic era, we just saw some new records set last night.

New York to London in 4hr56min

As anyone in the UK knows, at the moment winter storm Ciara is causing some unpleasant weather on the other side of the Atlantic. Along with this we’ve seen a bomb cyclone form over the Atlantic, which is causing an incredibly strong jet stream.

Flight times can already be highly variable based on the time of year one is traveling, but winds across the Atlantic last night were on a whole different level.

BA112 from New York JFK to London Heathrow set a new flight time record last night. A British Airways 747 operated the flight in just 4hr56min. That flight is blocked at 7hr5min (which includes taxi time and a buffer), meaning that the plane arrived at 4:47AM, a full 1hr38min ahead of the 6:25AM scheduled arrival. WOW.

Virgin Atlantic wasn’t far behind British Airways, though. VS4 from New York JFK to London Heathrow was scheduled to depart at exactly the same time. The flight was operated by an A350-1000, and that plane completed the flight in just 4hr57min. It ended up arriving at the gate at Heathrow at 5:05AM, a full 1hr25min ahead of schedule.

Tail winds on both flights were as high as 265mph, and the planes reached maximum speeds of over 830mph.

Previous transatlantic speed & time records

For what it’s worth, the previous record for a New York to London flight was when Norwegian operated the route in 5hr13min in January 2018, recording a maximum speed of 776 miles per hour.

Purely in terms of speed on a transatlantic flight, Virgin Atlantic set a record in February 2019, when a Los Angeles to London flight reached a maximum speed of 801 miles per hour.

But British Airways won all the prizes last night, beating Norwegian’s record by 17 minutes, and also reaching speeds of well over 800 miles per hour.

These still aren’t the shortest transatlantic flights

I’d note that the time records are specific to the New York to London market, though there are most definitely still shorter transatlantic flights out there.

For example, last night Aer Lingus flew from Boston to Dublin in a flight time of 4hr49min, which is actually not that impressive when you consider that the flight is nearly 500 miles shorter (however, the 747 has a faster cruising speed than the A330).

The shortest regularly scheduled transatlantic flights are from Northeastern Canada to Dublin, though none of them operated last night.

Bottom line

While New York to London flights are notoriously short to begin with, operating these flights in under five hours is next level. They must have had under two hours between meal services onboard.

It’s so cool that they set this record, though I’m sure just about anyone traveling this route in a flat bed wishes they had just slowed down a bit so they could get more rest. Presumably most people aren’t in a rush to get anywhere at 4:47AM on a Sunday.

(Tip of the hat to God Save The Points)

Comments
  1. The records is cool and all but I would be a bit miffed even in economy. As arriving at 5 am in many places can be a pain in the ass as most stuff is still working like its the night.

  2. I would be really upset if I purchased an overnight first or business class ticket on that route that only lasted 4.5 hrs. BTW…some of the live-cam YouTube streams coming out of LHR this morning are showing some spectacular landings in the face of storm Ciara.

  3. @54austin and @PHLy, scheduled landings before then are however a certain number of flights are allowed to land early to stop them having to hold overhead for 90 mins if they arrive before their scheduled time, say due to weather. If however the same flight arrived before the curfew multiple days in a row, then they would be told to hold as the airline might be taking advantage of the goodwill rather than the weather.

  4. @54austin & @PHLy – Landings at LHR are not prohibited before 6 AM. The landing fees before 6AM are,however, prohibitive, so most airlines will choose to wait until after 6 if they arrive close to that time. I suspect arriving around 5 would have cost more in fuel to keep circling for an hour than the additional landing fees.

  5. There’s a creepy Twilight Zone where (If I’m remembering correctly) a plane gets caught in a super-fast jet stream and time travels into the past, then has to try to speed up to go back to where it was – I believe in the end (in current time, so to speak) the plane has completely vanished…

  6. @54austin and others – I was on BA92 from YYZ to LHR last night. The captain originally told us we would have to circle until 0600 due to the noise ordinance, but came on later and said the Heathrow authorities issued a waiver due to the impending storm (Ciara). They wanted to get everyone on the ground rather than risk the weather going below minimums with a bunch of flights circling. We did indeed deplane at 0515, a full 1 hour and 10 minutes ahead of schedule (the captain told us we had a tailwind of 240 mph at times, with an effective ground speed approaching 800 mph).

  7. Is that above the speed of sound? I always thought these planes that aren’t designed for supersonic flight didn’t have the structural integrity to withstand such speeds/sonic boom creation…

  8. Flew EWR to AMS yesterday on a B767 and we arrived over an hour early, despite having left with a small delay. Cruising (ground) speed showed over 1150 km/h on the IFE.

  9. Anybody know… is there any incentive (or ability) for the airlines to slow the plane down to avoid arriving that early?

    Can they slow the actual airspeed down a hundred knots or something to counteract the super high tailwind somewhat? Would that save fuel (and money) and fees at LHR?

    Perhaps its not efficient to run the turbofans at that much lower power so its not worth it.

    Any insight appreciated.

    #AirplaneNerdTime 🙂

  10. @Adriano

    I’m not an expert but I believe the plane isn’t actually flying supersonic. Relative to the ground it is covering distance at 800MPH but airspeed is still normal so around 550MPH. It is the combination of the airspeed and the massive tailwind that gives the effect.

    Anyone else feel free to correct me or give a more lucid explanation.

  11. @Adriano

    It is above the speed of sound in groundspeed, but there wouldn’t have been a sonic boom due to the 240 mph tailwind, their airspeed wasn’t over 800mph. The plane would have to go an additional 240mph to create one.

  12. @John

    Wow. That was a super helpful response. No small animals available to kick this morning?

    I clearly said I wasn’t an expert and invited somebody with more knowledge to correct me.
    So here’s your chance, enlighten me (and everyone else) about the science instead of tossing insults.

    Cheers.

  13. @DougG @ Zip Silver

    Thank you for your responses – those make sense to me.

    @ John

    It seems that perhaps you don’t agree with those answers. I would much prefer to hear your thoughts/suggested explanation rather than implications over whether or not someone else was a diligent student in science class

  14. @DougG

    Also, re your question, yes that would be my guess: running the engines below cruise enough to ensure an on time arrival (rather than an early one) is probably less efficient to the point that it is much more constly than having an early arrival.

    But as you mentioned in your answer to my question, I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to say with certainty 🙂

  15. “While New York to London flights are notoriously short to begin with,”‘

    I get what you’re saying but this is till one of the funniest sentences ever.

  16. Airspeed: put your hand out and how it feels. (That is what the wings/ fuselage feels) same with cars, bicycles etc. While you are moving, if wind blows from behind, it didn’t hurt as much as if wind blows from the front even the wheels are spinning the same speed. The Air speed “keeps” the plane in the air not the ground speed If you have a small plane like a Cessna 150, a 60+ miles / hr head wind can make it Liftoff from ground with engines off and have a ground speed of 0.

    Groundseed: if u r a hitchhiker standing still on the side of the road, how fast the plane/car/bycicle passes you. Nothing to do with wind.

  17. Here is the final answer for all the laypeople struggling:

    NO, a subsonic airliner is NOT pushed beyond the speed of sound due to tailwind.

    Speed of sound (Mach) is calculated on an object moving THROUGH a fluid (atmosphere). Airspeed + wind component = groundspeed.

    The fluid itself can also be moving relative to the ground, this is how tailwind or headwinds result.

    A 747 with a tailwind & the resultant groundspeed is analogous to a paddler in a canoe paddling downstream, the speed in water would be “waterspeed”, the speed relative to the bank is the “groundspeed.”

    John was being snarky, but he in fact is the one that needs to revisit science class.

  18. I was on BA BOS-LHR last night. Aggressive on several levels:
    -tailwinds at 180+mph
    -flight time must have been close to what the record was. If it isn’t the record, it’s only because we had to circle for about 15-20 at the end. Flight time was planned for 5hrs flat based on tailwinds.
    -turbulence the whole time (I was at the back of the plane) – likely due to the tailwinds.
    -couldn’t see ground until about 500m above ground, caught a ton of wind coming in, and the pilots nailed the landing. Credit to them – tough conditions!

    Pretty awesome to see, even though I didn’t get any sleep!

  19. I flew BOS-LHR in a similar weather pattern several years ago. They dealt with the LHR curfew issue by delaying departure from BOS (although it wasn’t until we were on-board that we knew the reason for the delay, so everybody started out a bit grumpy!).

    @Ben ‘Bomb cyclone’, really? Weather stories are sensationalist enough already, they don’t need further embellishment.

  20. @54austin
    There are select regularly scheduled services arriving before 6. And I think BA from HK is scheduled at 450 anyway.

  21. @DougG

    It’s a perfectly valid question, but the simple answer is that an airliner at cruise altitude can’t slow down all that much or it risks stalling.

    As you get higher the drop in pressure and temperature means that the Indicated Airspeed (as measured by the pitot tubes) bears less and less resemblance to the True Airspeed or the Ground Speed. The result is that at cruise altitude with a huge tailwind you can be doing 550 knots TAS, 750 knots over the ground, but only 280 knots or so IAS.

    Even Concorde when flying at Mach 2 and FL600 was only doing about 430 knots IAS.

    Now since a 747 in clean configuration without flaps stalls at about 200 knots IAS, and will start getting some initial stall buffet at 230-240ish there isn’t much scope to slow down at cruise altitudes.

    Interestingly enough at cruise altitudes pilots don’t really use IAS much – they fly on Mach number instead.

    Now these are just generalities, if you want to be pedantic then things get much more complicated, for example strictly speaking there is no such thing as a stall speed – actually aircraft stall at a particular angle of attack, and one of the components of the AOA is a vector.

    But in general that’s why aircraft at cruise altitudes can’t slow down all that much – look up “coffin corner” for more details.

    I have been on TATL flights that have been held on the ground at JFK because high tailwinds would have meant arriving too early but I understand that because of the incoming storm there were a lot more exceptions than normal made.

  22. DougG is exactly correct, speed is relative to the inertial frame through which an object is moving.

  23. Concorde and 747 remain faster and better in turbulence due to the jumbos weight and Concorde sheer altitude than any of the new generation but cheaper to fuel plastic aircraft.

  24. Greta Thunberg has now deemed it okay to fly in economy only during a bomb cyclone with 200 mph winds. It’s like sailing in the sky.

  25. @Ethan “The Ordeal of Flight 33” I think it is, from the original series. I forget how the Langoliers plays out, I just remember it was on a plane.

  26. Just in case you missed it the BA212 from Boston got to Heathrow in 4:48 according to Flightradar. That must make it the quickest US to London/U.K. The Dublin flight must have been quite slow compared to the others

  27. To all.

    Great discussion, thanks for the information, experience and feedback (well, except maybe one person). Nice when the internet / social media just kind of works.

    Cheers.

  28. @John Really. You would rather have angle flat beds in Business? Emirates is probably the most overrated airline in history.

  29. For once, I’m not the only one that complained about flight times. Every time I get onboard an international biz flight, it is always early. But when I sit back in economy, it’s always delayed.

  30. BA should set a record of good costumer service! Thank god they fly across the pacific quicker everytime so passengers can escape the misery of flying them faster.

  31. Yeah I was EWR to ZRH last night and it was incredible… just over six hours. Those westward flights are going to be brutal, but what a cool experience. Amazingly smooth too!

  32. perhaps the increased wind speed is one of the effects of climate change.

    more energy into the system and all that.

  33. I am not sure that one aircraft can elect to fly at a lower speed than the prevalent speed that others are dong. The speed is based on the usual, safe speed relative to the tailwind. All aircraft in that that lane have the same speed and tailwind. It would be awkward for one aircraft to slow down and have the following aircraft get much too close!

  34. I was on SG025 JFK-FRA last night and we did arrive a bit earlier. There was a ton of turbulence and I was in the upper deck. There were no hot drinks because of that.

    If I recall correctly I saw 840+ mph groundspeed on the screen. I didnt take a picture even though it caught my attention. I would check flightradar24 maybe the info is there.

  35. I checked the public data for both SQ25 and VS4, the former highest speed is 693 knots and the latter is 700… So not sure if I misremember, or the data is incomplete.

  36. Back in the day when Concorde was in use and no-one was interested in subsonic crossing times I was on a Virgin 747-200 ex EWR to LGW. On taxi out the captain gave a short talk about turbulence. I gather it was quite rough but I’d had a tough couple of days of meetings and travel so I slept. Time from wheels off to wheels on was five hours ten minutes, the captain announced the time as we arrived at the gate.

  37. I wasn’t on any of the flights mentioned above but I did fly back to London from New York a couple of hours later. One of the most insane flights of my entire life. We arrived early and the seat belt signs were kept on the entire time. I loved every second of it.

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