What is the maximum altitude at which a passenger plane can fly?

What is the maximum altitude at which a passenger plane can fly?

The maximum altitudes of most commercial jets are comparable. Based on performance and safety considerations, maximum values are established for each aircraft type. What are these boundaries, and how are they set?

Which aircraft has the highest altitude?

Before we look at the reasons, let’s have a look at the current restrictions for commercial aircraft. Every aircraft has a ‘service ceiling,’ which specifies the greatest height at which it should be operated. This is roughly 41,000 feet for most current commercial planes. The precise level will be determined primarily by the performance of the engines (it is designed to be the maximum that still allows efficient operation).

The ceiling of many big widebodies can reach up to 43,000 feet (12,500 meters). The A380, for example, has a length of 43,100 feet, while the A350 and Boeing 787 have the same length (although the larger 787-10 and A350-1000 are lower at 41,100 feet and 41,450 feet).

The maximum service ceiling for both the 787 and the A380 is 43,100 feet. Photo: Getty Images

The newest 737 MAX is certified to 41,000 feet for narrowbodies (although the Original and Classic series 737s are rated only to 37,000 feet). The A320 family is rated slightly lower, with the neo series, for example, ranging from 39,100 to 39,800 feet.

Among widebodies, the Boeing 737 MAX has the highest service ceiling. Photo: Getty Images

Outside of modern commercial aeroplanes, there are some higher restrictions. Concorde (of course, no longer in service) was capable of reaching altitudes of 60,000 feet. Many private jets fly at altitudes of 45,000 to 51,000 feet. When military jets are factored in, the SR71 holds the record for normal flight altitude at 85,000 feet.

Why fly so high?

This begs the question of why planes fly at altitudes of 35,000 to 40,000 feet in the first place. Performance is the key reason behind this. At higher elevations, the air is less dense, resulting in less resistance (and in turn less fuel). At high altitudes, jet engines are also more efficient.

However, there is a limit to this. When the altitude is elevated too high, the jet engines create less thrust and the wing lift diminishes. Obviously, these must be adequate to keep the plane flying. The stress on the fuselage is also a factor to consider. The stress on the fuselage increases with altitude in a pressurised cabin (as external air density decreases and internal pressure remains the same).

However, the particular height chosen in flight (up to this maximum) will be determined by a number of factors. The wind is a crucial component, and it’s critical to factor in high-altitude jet streams for ideal flight. Flight levels are also affected by turbulence, weather, and other air traffic constraints.

ATC and atmospheric conditions determine the actual height of operation.  Photo: Getty Images

The limits on flying high commercially

There’s another reason why commercial aeroplanes have height limits and engines are tuned to fly at such altitudes. This has to do with security.

The aeroplane will swiftly descend to a lower altitude if cabin decompression occurs. From a higher altitude, this clearly takes longer, and significantly, passengers would lose consciousness much faster. It’s critical to provide passengers and crew enough time to react and put on oxygen masks before they drop out.

Having enough time to react in the event of cabin depressurization at altitude is crucial. Photo: Getty Images

How are private planes and Concorde able to fly higher? Private planes are exempt from the same “Time of Useful Consciousness” restrictions as commercial planes, and their engines are frequently larger in proportion to their weight.

Concorde was unique. With the reduction of drag, it excelled at higher altitudes, allowing for faster speeds and more lift. It also reduced the risk of decompression sickness by incorporating a mechanism that aided in speedy emergency descent. It could drop much faster if it had a delta wing. In the case of a breakdown, the small windows would reduce the pace of depressurization.

Concorde was able to fly higher because to its unique design and powerful engines. Photo: Getty Images

Do you have any comments on commercial planes and their altitude restrictions? Or do you have any technical details you’d like to share? Please let us know in the comments section.

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Cover Photo Credit: Getty Images