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How high does a plane on short trips vs. on long trips or is the altitude the same?

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Shawn Law

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Longer flights are assigned higher altitudes, but 35,000-39,000 feet seems to be about average.

Posted on Oct 27, 2017

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James M Knox

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Your question is a good one - but the answer is much more complicated that you would expect. Think about driving your car from point A to point B across a city. Lots of paths - some shorter than others, but the shortest path may not be the quickest. Or the quickest may involve a toll road - and you may or may not be in a hurry.

The usual most important factor (for commercial operations, at least) is to save money, while still arriving on time. Airplanes in the air are subject to the winds aloft, which will generally be at different strengths AND DIRECTIONS at different altitudes. Most airplanes operate more efficiently at higher altitudes (up to limits), but at those higher altitudes the plane may face stiffer headwind. Further, it costs time and fuel to climb to those altitudes, and you will not regain coming down as much as it took going up. [Think of a bicycle on hilly terrain vs. level ground.]

So what's the answer? Well, for most trips the pilot will consider all these factors. They are taught during training how to plan the flight in terms of time and fuel required, and to include in that especially the winds at different altitudes. Then they will pick the altitude, whatever that is, that maximizes the results that they consider most important.

Posted on Oct 25, 2017

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