Cruise (aeronautics)

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A four-engined Qantas Boeing 747-400 jet in cruise

Cruise is the phase of aircraft flight that starts when the aircraft levels off after a climb, until it begins to descend for landing.[1] Cruising usually consumes the majority of a flight, and it may include changes in heading (direction of flight), airspeed and altitude.

Commercial or passenger aircraft are usually designed for optimum performance around their cruise speed (VC) and cruise altitude. Factors affecting optimum cruise speed and altitude include payload, center of gravity, air temperature, and humidity. Cruise altitude is usually where the higher ground speed is balanced against the decrease in engine thrust and efficiency at higher altitudes. A typical cruising airspeed for a long-distance commercial passenger aircraft is approximately 880–926 km/h (475–500 kn; 547–575 mph).[citation needed] The typical cruising altitude for commercial airliners is 31,000 to 38,000 feet (9,400 to 11,600 m; 5.9 to 7.2 mi).[2][better source needed]

The speed which covers the greatest distance for a given amount of fuel is known as the maximum range speed. This is the speed at which drag is minimised.

For jet aircraft, "long-range cruise" speed (LRC) is typically chosen to give 1% less fuel efficiency than maximum range speed, because this results in a 3-5% increase in speed. However, fuel is not the only marginal cost in airline operations, so the speed for most economical operation (ECON) is chosen based on the cost index (CI), which is the ratio of time cost to fuel cost.[3] Cost index can be given in "Boeing" or "English" units as ($/hr)/(cents/lb), equivalent to 100 lb/hr.[4][5] A typical cost index in these units might be anywhere from 5 to 150.[6] Alternatively cost index can be given in metric or "Airbus" units of kg/min.[4][5] In the presence of a tailwind, ECON speed will be reduced to take advantage of the tailwind, whereas in a headwind, ECON speed will be increased to avoid the penalty of the headwind. In a strong tailwind, the aircraft can fly at a low speed to conserve fuel, while the tailwind does most of the work getting the aircraft to its destination. In an area of strong headwind, the aircraft should fly faster to pass through that region sooner.[6]

For propeller aircraft, drag is minimised when the lift-to-drag ratio is maximised. However, the speed for this is typically regarded as too slow, so propeller aircraft typically cruise at a significantly faster speed.[7] Combustion engines have an optimum efficiency level for fuel consumption and power output.[8][better source needed] Generally, gasoline piston engines are most efficient between idle speed and 30% short of full throttle. Diesels are most efficient at around 90% of full throttle.[9][better source needed]

As the aircraft consumes fuel, its weight decreases and the optimum altitude for fuel economy increases. For traffic control reasons it is usually necessary for an aircraft to stay at a cleared flight level. On long-haul flights, the pilot may ask air traffic control to climb from one flight level to a higher one, in a manoeuvre known as a step climb.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Glossary". CAST/ICAO Common Taxonomy Team. Retrieved 2016-06-19.
  2. ^ Hacobian, Celine (27 January 2018). "Here's How High Planes Actually Fly, According to Experts". Time. Retrieved 23 September 2022.
  3. ^ "AERO - Fuel Conservation Strategies: Cruise Flight 2". Boeing. Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  4. ^ a b "Getting to grips with cost index" (PDF). Airbus. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  5. ^ a b "Top 10 facts or myths about Cost Index".
  6. ^ a b "AERO - Fuel Conservation Strategies: Cruise Flight 3". Boeing. Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  7. ^ "Why You Rarely Fly At Best Range Speed In A Prop, But You're Close To It In A Jet". Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  8. ^ Cruising speed definition
  9. ^ Thiel, Richard. "How to Find the Best Cruising Speed for Your Boat". Power & Motoryacht. Retrieved 29 January 2022.