British Airways Sets Record, Crossing The Atlantic In Under 5 Hours In Strong Winds

Feb 10, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 7:01 am

Kubilay Kahveci's flight was supposed to be in the air for more than six hours — an overnight voyage from New York City to London. But British Airways Flight 112 made the trek in under five hours, setting a new record for the fastest subsonic commercial flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

"I was definitely surprised. It felt like a European flight rather than a transatlantic one," Kahveci told NPR in an email. "Turbulence woke me up a couple of times. ... But it wasn't too bad after all and I'm glad they brought us home safely because I initially booked a Virgin Atlantic flight that was cancelled due to Storm Ciara."

Propelled by strong winds, the Boeing 747 at its fastest topped a ground speed of 800 miles per hour, according to global flight-tracking service Flightradar24. British Airways confirmed that the flight took 4 hours, 56 minutes, beating the previous 2018 record by Norwegian, which flew from New York to London in 5 hours, 13 minutes.

"That was the first time that we've seen it below five hours," said Flightradar24's Ian Petchenik. "This particular speed hasn't happened before, but those increased speeds across the Atlantic happen on a fairly regular basis, especially in the winter when the jet stream kind of dips down into where the North Atlantic Tracks are and is a bit stronger."

Severe storms around the United Kingdom have been causing lots of flight delays, cancellations and diversions. But the wind conditions made for very fast eastbound flights, a few of which on Sunday crossed the Atlantic under the five-hour mark. Petchenik said the New York-London route has historically been used as a speed benchmark for trans-Atlantic air travel.

"We always prioritise safety over speed records," British Airways wrote in its brief statement to NPR on Sunday, "but our highly trained pilots made the most of the conditions to get customers back to London well ahead of time."

By Petchenik's estimate, the jet stream winds may have added roughly 150 miles per hour to the airplane's speed.

"We knew that the jet stream was going to be very well placed this week to possibly break that record," he said, explaining that subsonic speeds are measured against the ground.

Flights cross the Atlantic Ocean in the jet stream, as tracked by Flightradar24.
Courtesy of Flightradar24

"Relative to the airflow around it, it's not going faster," Petchenik said. "It's still traveling at the same speed that it normally travels relative to the air. The air itself is moving faster."

Kahveci, who was coming back from a business trip on Flight BA112, said the captain did announce after the landing that the flight was the quickest subsonic British Airways flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to London's Heathrow Airport — but did not mention that it was the fastest overall on the route.

"It's just bragging rights," Petchenik said. "I don't think there's a plaque handed out, though that would be neat."

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In many ways, it was a completely unremarkable flight - an overnight trip from New York City to London. But by the time it landed, British Airways Flight 112 would set a record for the fastest subsonic commercial flight across the Atlantic. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The key ingredient to speed was the jet stream, this air current that ribbons from the east coast of the United States toward Europe.

IAN PETCHENIK: We knew that the jet stream was going to be very well placed this week to possibly break that record.

SELYUKH: Ian Petchenik is with the global flight tracking service Flightradar24. This weekend, as storms were hitting the U.K., Petchenik was on high alert for strong winds propelling one of the eastbound transatlantic flights to a potential speed record.

PETCHENIK: It's kind of like a marathoner wakes up and the weather's perfect. They're feeling great, and they just know it's that kind of day. And the course is also maybe a little downhill.

SELYUKH: This proved true. Typically, British Airways Flight 112 flies from New York's JFK Airport to London Heathrow in six hours and 13 minutes. But this Sunday...

PETCHENIK: They did it in four hours and 56 minutes. And that was the first time that we've seen it below five hours.

SELYUKH: This was actually the case with several transatlantic flights on Sunday. But this route from New York to London, Petchenik says it has historically been a benchmark.

PETCHENIK: And this is the fastest a subsonic commercial airliner has ever done it between these two cities.

SELYUKH: Subsonic means slower than the speed of sound, which is how commercial aircraft fly. Petchenik estimates strong winds may have added 150 miles an hour to the airplane's normal speed. The record-setting British Airways flight at times topped a ground speed of 800 miles per hour. At its most basic, think a paper airplane in a gust of wind. The plane itself is not necessarily moving faster than normal relative to the air around it; it's just riding a very strong air current.

PETCHENIK: Those increased speeds across the Atlantic happen on a fairly regular basis, especially in the winter.

SELYUKH: In fact, the previous record-holder happened in January of 2018, when a Norwegian flight from New York reached London in five hours and 13 minutes. On Sunday, British Airways said in a statement that it prioritizes safety over speed, but its highly trained pilots made the most of the weather conditions. One passenger told NPR the flight was a little bumpy, but not too bad, especially given that his original flight to the U.K. had been canceled because of the storm.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIGI MASIN'S "CALYPSO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.