What Is The Highest Altitude Passenger Aircraft Can Fly?

Most commercial jets operate at similar maximum altitudes. Maximum levels are defined for each aircraft type, based on performance and safety considerations. What are these limits, and how are they determined?

Aircraft contrails
Commercial aircraft operate around 35,000 to 40,000 feet. Photo: Getty Images

Which aircraft fly the highest

Before we get into the reasons, we will look at the limits for commercial aircraft today. All aircraft have a specified ‘service ceiling’ that defines the maximum height that it should be operated at. For most modern commercial jets today, this is around 41,000 feet. The exact level will depend mostly on the engines’ performance (it is designed to be the maximum that still allows efficient operation).

Many large widebodies have a ceiling of up to around 43,000 feet (12,500 meters). The A380, for example, is 43,100 feet and the  A350 and Boeing 787 are the same (although the larger 787-10 and A350-1000 are lower at 41,100 feet and 41,450 feet).

787 & A380 Getty
The 787 and A380 share the same maximum service ceiling of 43,100 feet. Photo: Getty Images

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

What Is The Highest Altitude Passenger Aircraft Can Fly?
The Boeing 737 MAX has the highest service ceiling amongst narrowbodies. Photo: Getty Images

There are some higher limits though outside current commercial aircraft. Concorde (of course, no longer operational) was rated to fly up to 60,000 feet. And many private jets operate up to around 45,000 to 51,000 feet. And if you introduce military jets, the SR71 holds the record (for normal flight) at 85,000 feet.

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Why fly so high?

This raises the question of why aircraft fly at 35,000 to 40,000 feet in any case. The main reason for this is performance. The air is less dense at higher altitudes, producing less resistance (and in turn less fuel). Jet engines also operate more efficiently at such altitudes.

There is a limit to this, though. If altitude is increased too much, then the jet engines will produce less thrust and lift from the wings decreases. These obviously need to be sufficient to maintain flight. Stress on the fuselage is also a consideration. With a pressurized cabin, stress on the fuselage increases with altitude (as external air density decreases and internal pressure remains the same).

The exact altitude chosen in flight, though (up to this maximum), will depend on several factors. The wind is a major factor, and taking into high altitude jet streams is very important for optimal flight. Turbulence, weather, and other air traffic restrictions also affect flight levels.

EU pollution levels down coronavirus
The actual height of operation is determined by ATC and atmospheric conditions. Photo: Getty Images

The limits on flying high commercially

There is another reason why limits are set for commercial aircraft and why engines are optimized to fly at that height. This is related to safety.

In the event of cabin decompression, the aircraft will descend quickly to a lower altitude. This obviously takes longer from a higher altitude, and critically passengers would lose consciousness much quicker at a higher altitude. Allowing sufficient time for passengers and crew to react and fit oxygen masks before losing consciousness is vital.

ailine oxygen mask breifing
In the event of cabin depressurization at altitude, having sufficient time to react is critical. Photo: Getty Images

How then can private jets and Concorde fly higher? Private aircraft are not subject to the same ‘Time of Useful Consciousness’ limits and often have larger engines relative to aircraft weight.

Concorde was different. It excelled at higher altitudes, with the removal of drag allowing higher speed, and with it more lift. It also minimized the risk of decompression by having a system to assist with rapid emergency descent. With a delta wing, it could descend much faster. Its small windows would also lessen the rate of depressurization in the event of failure.

A British Airways Concorde
With its different design and powerful engines, Concorde was able to operate higher. Photo: Getty Images

Would you like to share any thoughts on commercial aircraft and their altitude limitations? Or are there any technical details you would like to add? Let us know in the comments. 

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