All of a sudden, flying from LA to New York is taking less than four hours

Coming in ahead of schedule.
Coming in ahead of schedule.
Image: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
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Flying east across the US has rarely been this fast.

Non-stop flights from Los Angeles to the New York City area have regularly been taking less than four hours (240 minutes) in recent days. These are some of the fastest commercial flights to ever traverse two of the most popular routes in the US, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and LAX to Newark Liberty International Airport.

Leading the pack was United Airlines flight 415. On Feb. 17, it took off from LAX at 11:28pm PT and landed in Newark, New Jersey 226 minutes later at 6:14am ET. Upon landing, the pilot told passengers it was the fastest he had ever traveled on the route in his decades of flying. It was the sixth fastest commercial flight from LAX to Newark on record, according to a Quartz analysis of flight data.

The faster speeds are entirely the result of the jet stream. The high-altitude, west-to-east air current, is currently reaching record speeds over the US—giving west-to-east US travel a time boost. It’s typical for the jet stream to be strong over the US in winter when the hot temperatures in the US’s south meet the cold temperatures over Canada. A lack of storms has allowed the jet stream to strengthen without interruption. Some scientists say climate change may be destabilizing the jet stream through warmer Arctic temperatures. Others say there isn’t enough data to know the cause yet.

The speed could yield savings for airlines. Shorter flight times mean burning less fuel and paying workers for less time on the clock. It can also increase costs, though. A tailwind in one direction is a headwind in the other. Taking longer flight paths to avoid the winds adds costs. When planes arrive early there can be problems finding an open gate to park the plane and allow passengers off, causing frustration. (American, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and United all operate flights from LAX to the New York City area.)

When pilot and future astronaut John Glenn set the transcontinental flight-speed record in 1957, he made a trip from outside LA to New York City in 203 minutes flying a supersonic US Navy Jet. In 1990, Ed Yeilding piloted a SR-71 Blackbird from Los Angeles to Washington, in 64 minutes, after taking a flying start on a slightly shorter trip.

Since 1995, there have been 323,042 commercial flights that have flown from LAX to Newark or JFK. Just 189 did it in under 240 minutes, according to government data. (We excluded flights where reported figures are likely erroneous—like a TWA flight in 1995 listed at 42 minutes.)

The US Bureau of Transportation Statistics stores flight duration data back to 1995 and the current release is through November 2018. Since then, nine flights have completed a LAX-NYC route in under 240 minutes according to flight-tracking company FlightAware. One of those flights was in January, and eight were in the last week. The durations here only measure time in flight. Boarding, taxi, and unloading are not included.