Why does it still take six hours to fly across the US?

Six hours! Still!
Six hours! Still!
Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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The first nonstop transcontinental commercial-jet trip took off from Los Angeles in 1959. In the six decades since, humans have landed on the moon, invented the iPhone, and started planning a trip to Mars. Yet between increased gate time, delays at congested airports, and fuel-saving slower speeds, it actually takes longer to fly across the US today than it did at the dawn of the commercial air-travel age.

“The time to fly across the United States hasn’t changed since I was a baby. When do we get the next leap in air travel?” CNBC anchor Brian Sullivan asked a group of transport executives at the Milken Institute 2018 Global Conference in Los Angeles on April 30. (Cross-country flight times were one of several transportation grievances discussed during the session, which also touched on inefficient airport access and slow service on Amtrak’s Acela Express train in the US Northeast.)

It’s physically possible for a commercial jet to get from one side of the US to the other in less than five hours: British Airways’ Concorde made it in three hours and 55 minutes on its retirement journey from New York to Seattle’s Museum of Flight (and if you’re really in a hurry, military jets have made the journey in just over an hour.) But while customers may think they want faster flight options, especially when stuck in a long-haul coach cabin, they’re not actually willing to pay for it, says Pierre Beaudoin, chairman and former CEO of aerospace company Bombardier.

“People are not ready to pay for super-sonic travel,” Beaudoin says. History supports this thesis: Concorde service plummeted as ticket prices rose, until it was no longer economically viable. This was in part British Airways’ own fault; market research revealed that people thought the service cost more than it did, so they raised prices to match perception.

Instead of shrinking coast-to-coast flight times, the US air industry’s next big leap will be improving travel between mid-sized cities, Beaudoin says. The industry’s current “hub and spoke” system makes domestic travel a slow and cumbersome ordeal outside select routes to the largest cities. Bombardier is currently designing cheaper, smaller airplanes that could make it cost-efficient to fly between smaller markets.