Some flights are hitting 800 mph due to high winds —and landing early

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3 commercial flights topped 800 mph

3 commercial flights topped 800 mph 05:16

Near record wind speeds resulted in multiple international flights over the weekend exceeding 800 miles per hour — far faster than the 500 mph to 600 mph speeds at which commercial flights usually travel.

Powerful, 265 mile-per-hour winds propelled three planes on international routes, allowing them to reach speeds greater than 800 miles per hour and arrive at their destinations early.

The wind speed was the second-highest ever recorded, according to the National Weather Service.  

“For those flying eastbound in this jet, there will be quite a tail wind,” the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington office wrote on X on Saturday, referring to the jet stream. 

The impact of a changing climate is causing stronger winds within the jet stream, a narrow band of wind that flows west to east, experts say. While that can help give a tailwind to aircraft flying east, there are also downsides, such as more turbulence — and stronger headwinds for flights heading west.

“Depending on what direction you’re going, having a great tail wind is nice,” Shem Malmquist, a professor of aeronautics at Florida Tech University and a Boeing 777 captain, told CBS MoneyWatch. He noted that he recently flew on an international flight that hit 822 miles per hour, also thanks to the jet stream.

But, he added, there can be downsides to a faster jet stream, including bumpier flights and slower travel times for aircraft traveling west. “On the other hand, the jet stream is a narrow band of air and it’s going to create a lot of turbulence because the air surrounding it isn’t moving as fast,” he said.

Jet streams are typically strongest in winter, when the difference in air temperature at the polar and tropic regions is most pronounced, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

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An image showing where jet streams occur.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The fast-moving flights included Virgin Atlantic Flight 22, which departed from Washington Dulles International Airport at 10:45 p.m. Saturday and landed in London 45 minutes early, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.  

At 11:20 p.m. at a cruising altitude of 33,350 feet, the aircraft reached a top speed of 802 miles per hour, according to the site. 

United Airlines Flight 64 from Newark to Lisbon was also aided by the jet stream, a narrow band of strong wind that flows at an aircraft’s cruising altitude. The plane flew as fast as 838 miles per hour and landed in Lisbon 20 minutes early, also according to FlightAware.

The fastest moving flight of the day was American Airlines Flight 120 from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar, which reached a max speed of 840 miles per hour. It arrived 27 minutes early, FlightAware data shows.

By comparison, the British Airways Concorde flew at a cruising speed of 1350 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of sound, making it from New York to London in under three hours in February 1996. Concorde was taken out of service in 2003.

Did they break the sound barrier?

While the planes did move faster than the speed of sound, which travels at about 767 miles per hour, the flights did not break the sound barrier. That’s because the planes’ own speeds, minus the assistance of the wind, weren’t faster than the speed of sound.

Strong winds can aid pilots, in the case of the three flights that arrived early, but they can also complicate flight planning and cause disruptions, Malmquist said. Aircraft that are flying west, against the jet stream, can also encounter significant headwinds, adding to a flight’s planned travel time and requiring more fuel.

“It adds fuel and time and can lead to more turbulent flights,” Malmquist said.

More turbulence to come

The effects of climate change are expected to cause more turbulence in air travel in the years to come. That could mean more widespread delays and cancellations across airlines, in what is already an unpredictable industry. 

University of Chicago and the U.S. National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research (NSF NCAR) found that climate change will cause jet stream winds will get significantly faster by mid century, in some cases cutting down on flight times.

Specifically, research shows that the fastest jet stream winds will get faster by about 2% for every degree Celsius temperatures rise. 

More frequent severe weather events will likely cause disruptions. 

“There are a lot of ways climate change can affect air travel. Thunderstorms are an obvious one,” Wired magazine reporter, Amanda Hoover, told CBS News. “When there is more heat in the air, there is more moisture, more thunderstorms.”

Scientists have also linked the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires to global warming. These kinds of events require airlines to leave more room between departures and also map out alternative routes. 

Weather events such as extremely high temperatures can also slow down air travel. 

“Really high heat can cause delays because a plane in high temperatures needs more time and more distance to take off to fight gravity,” Hoover said. 

Megan Cerullo

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Megan Cerullo is a New York-based reporter for CBS MoneyWatch covering small business, workplace, health care, consumer spending and personal finance topics. She regularly appears on CBS News Streaming to discuss her reporting.

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