2,000 times around the globe - A blog post on aircraft distances on Flightera.net - Flightera
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2,000 times around the globe - Looking at lifetime distances of Planes

Planes are fast. With a bit of tailwind, planes can reach peak speeds above 740mph (1,200 kmh), though ground speeds of 500-550mph (800-900kmh) are more common at cruising altitude. And while most planes today have very similar cruising speeds, the time they can fly at that speed heavily depends on the duration of the flight. Average speeds for a long-distance flight can easily top 800kmh more than twice as much as some shorter flights

So how far do planes fly in their lifetime? Most answers found online vary widely in their answers and are based on rough estimates without using any actual data. Flightera's dataset doesn't allow (yet) to track planes over their whole lifetime but just the data of a few months can deliver good insights into the dynamics at play. Three factors play a big role in how far a plane will fly in its lifetime:

  • How much of its flight time is spent at cruising altitude
  • How much time it spends in the air
  • How long it'll be in service for
The third question is hard to answer and depends on airline economics more than physical restrictions but I'll write more about that in a future post. For the other two, there is a trade off as long-distance planes tend to spend more time at cruising altitude but also more time between flights (longer turnarounds and schedule restrictions).
Timezones Matter

Just looking at December 2017 data, I retrieved the average monthly distance per plane (which is on our website for each active plane) to create the table below.

OO-SFVBrussels AirlinesA333788,838
B-2502Suparna AirlinesB737639,684
OO-SFMBrussels AirlinesA333611,255
B-2640China EasternB737605,928
OO-SFWBrussels AirlinesA333589,748
5T-CLCMauritania AirlinesB737510,622
OO-SFOBrussels AirlinesA333502,813
F-HBALAigle AzurA319493,027
CN-ROERoyal Air MarocB738489,460
B-2639China EasternB737482,004
The list is not as dominated by long-haul flights as you might expect (more than 1/3 are short-haul planes) and not at all by ultra-long flights. Most of the longest flights are flown by Middle-Eastern carriers (more about that in a later post) but none of those made it on the list.
Instead, Brussels airlines tops the list with several of their A330 planes. Those (and many others on the list, all in red) are used for Europe-Africa routes, long distance routes with little or no time difference which eliminates most scheduling restrictions. Some Chinese short-haul planes (in green) make it on the list for a similar reason as they can fly long distances without crossing timezones.
No single US plane is on the list, time zones in the US make it harder for Airlines to use planes truly 24/7.
More Data!

Looking at a 20 planes is hardly representative and time zones aren't all to explain plane distances. Therefore, I went for the whole dataset of ~23,000 active planes to explain more general trends. The plane size (which also determines the range and sort of route it's used for) expressed in seat capacity is plotted below and shows a clear relationship to monthly distance flown. This is mostly long-haul vs. short-haul but some linear relationship appears to exist ( more on that later).

Monthly distance flown by seat capacity

As newer planes are more fuel efficient and have longer ranges, it's also reasonable to assume that planes will fly longer distances as they're younger. And indeed, that's what we find looking at data, as the chart below shows.

Age vs. kilometers flown per month (planes <30 years)

What did we learn?

But how important are these factors? Running a regression on both of them, it appears that the age and seat capacity can explain ~30% of the variation in distance flown. According to the regression, each additional seat increases monthly distance by 480km while each year reduces it by 2,500km each month. For a long-distance plane (e.g. B777-300) with a 25 year life-span, this leads to a life-time distance of around 90 million kilometers (~50 million miles), or around 20,000 times around the earth.

This is a very rough estimate, only using the two simplest factors, and adding more airline-specific factors could probably increase accuracy significantly. Better factors and more robust methods, this will be part of the upcoming series on using machine learning on flight data. Stay tuned! In the meantime, follow us on Twitter to receive updates or to send us ideas for future articles.