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Ask The Captain: Why have flying altitudes changed during the pandemic?

John Cox
Special to USA TODAY

I enjoy sitting on my deck, watching planes overhead and following them on an aviation app. With the decrease of flights due to COVID-19, I now see many flights at elevations of about 40,000 feet, or about 5,000 feet higher than pre-pandemic. Why the change in altitude? 

– Bob from Lee’s Summit, Missouri

There are at least a couple of reasons for the higher altitudes that you are seeing on the app:

1. Many flights are not as full as they were, so they are lighter and can fly at higher altitudes, which are more fuel-efficient.

2. There is less traffic competing for the higher, more-fuel-efficient altitudes. 

Most airliners have maximum certified altitudes of 39,000 to 41,000 feet; a few can go higher but usually do not. Many business jets can fly higher, routinely cruising in the high 40,000s. The maximum altitude for many business jets is 51,000 feet.

I had a friend back in the '80s whose father-in-law was a pilot for PanAm. He claimed that Dulles International Airport in D.C. was the most tricky and difficult airport. Your thoughts?

– C.J. in Alabama

I would respectfully disagree. Dulles is an easy airport to operate in and out. The Reagan National Airport downtown is more challenging. 

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.