Air travel: the vital statistics

Choosing the right kind of plane can shave hours off your journey. In other words, think age before beauty

Until the Boeing 747 overtook me, I had assumed that all jet planes, Concorde apart, travel at the same speed. On the brink of the 21st century, many predictions about life in the future have failed to come true: we are not all working just two days a week, with machines doing all the tough stuff, and not all our travel is supersonic.

Until the Boeing 747 overtook me, I had assumed that all jet planes, Concorde apart, travel at the same speed. On the brink of the 21st century, many predictions about life in the future have failed to come true: we are not all working just two days a week, with machines doing all the tough stuff, and not all our travel is supersonic.

In fact, air travel is getting slower. The average speed of the most popular aircraft has fallen sharply in the three decades since Concorde was unveiled - and the world's only surviving supersonic plane is destined for the scrap heap in about 15 years, with no successor in sight.

Intuitively, it is reasonable to expect jet aircraft to travel at the same speed. After all, they all use the same basic Fifties technology, and surely air traffic control in today's crowded skies depends upon all planes travelling at the same speed?

The Jumbo passing by a couple of thousand feet above me disproved this theory. I was aboard a Boeing 767 flying from Havana to Manchester. In mid-Atlantic, we were overtaken by a British Airways 747 en route from Mexico City to Heathrow. Had a 707 slipped through a time-warp and resumed service on the New York-London route, it would have raced past us both. When the Boeing 707 was the standard equipment on the world's premier intercontinental air route, travellers got there nearly an hour quicker than on board the modern Boeing 767.

The traveller who chooses the right kind of plane can save plenty of time and all the stress associated with spending too long at 40,000 feet. On the afternoon Virgin Atlantic departure from Heathrow to Los Angeles, you will spend 25 minutes longer in the air than the noon flight. The reason: the earlier service is a Jumbo, which flies faster than the Airbus used on the 3pm departure. Only those with time to kill would consider American Airlines departure, because that uses an even more sluggish 767. And if your connecting flight at LAX uses the popular British Aerospace 146, you will find your cruising speed slipping well below 500mph.

Virgin Atlantic is beaten on the Tokyo-London route, with a Japan Airlines 747 overtaking Richard Branson's Airbus; from Hong Kong, a Cathay Pacific flight departs half-an-hour later than Virgin and is scheduled to arrive simultaneously at Heathrow.

Time is such a premium for busy travellers that some are prepared to pay 40 times the lowest economy fare for halving the time on a London-New York flight. But on many routes, there is no extra charge for cutting down on time.

As the figures here show, a clever choice of aircraft can accelerate you. So much for progress: when it comes to jet travel, the older the plane the faster the trip. Track down one of the few Boeing 707s still in commercial service, and you will get ahead in the great air race.

If there is a choice of an ageing 727 or a 146, you will travel 20 per cent faster on the older plane. Even its Soviet imitation, the Tupolev 154, is way ahead of the competition.

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