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Why does it take longer to fly West to East than East to West?

Which factors affect this?

Does Earth's spinning affect the time difference? Maybe the air circulation?

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migrated from astronomy.stackexchange.com Mar 21 '14 at 15:49

This question came from our site for astronomers and astrophysicists.

prevailing non-tropical winds are westerlies. Tailwinds flying east, headwinds flying west. – casey Mar 21 '14 at 17:11
It has nothing to do with the rotation of the earth, since the atmosphere rotates with it. – David Richerby Mar 21 '14 at 22:20
@DavidRicherby Actually, the jet streams are caused (indirectly) by the rotation of the earth. – Paŭlo Ebermann Mar 22 '14 at 8:47
To add a little more "concreteness" to the question, many ocean crossings use tracks (routes) defined on a daily basis. The forecast wind is a major factor in defining these routes so that east bound traffic can take advantage of the winds aloft westerlies and west bounds can minimise the impact of head winds. See here for examples - pilotweb.nas.faa.gov/common/nat.html and here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Atlantic_Tracks – Simon Mar 23 '14 at 11:42
up vote 26 down vote accepted

As Robbie's answer implies, the answer is wind - Trade Winds govern what happens on or near the surface and were historically important for sailing ships, and today in aviation we deal with the the Winds Aloft at whatever altitude your plane is flying.

As an example, consider two hypothetical flights at 30,000 feet with the winds shown below:
Winds Aloft at 30,000 ft

With these winds a flight from A to B (East-to-West) will be fighting headwinds the whole way. My handy flight planning program tells me that at 500 knots (airspeed) you'd be in the air for about 5 hours 30 minutes.

Traveling in the opposite direction from B to A you'd have a tailwind, and with the same 500 knot airspeed you would make the trip in roughly 4 hours.

The winds aloft vary seasonally, which can affect flight times for summer versus winter trips. According to one of our folks who is regularly up at those altitudes even the daily variations can be noticeable, and may make the difference between being able to make a nonstop trip or having to stop for fuel on the way.

Pilots and flight dispatchers will often review the wind data prior to flight and try to select an altitude that affords a "good ride" (free of turbulence) and favorable winds (either a tailwind or the lowest headwind they can find).

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"My handy flight planning program" - right, because you're a pilot, so you just have one of those lying around. I wonder if laymen browsing the other StackExchange sites feel like this when someone busts out a boolean satisfiability solver or a 270-dollar official copy of the C11 standard. – user2357112 Mar 22 '14 at 8:09
@user2357112 "handy flight planning program" as opposed to "Taking out a pen and paper and figuring out where the wind speed/direction changes, how long I'll be flying with each wind component, and what effect that will have on my ground speed" - Anyone who has taken High School physics can do the math (it's vector addition), but nobody wants to :-) – voretaq7 Mar 22 '14 at 18:51
@user2357112 you can also find those "handy flight planning programs" online for free! Here is one example but there are many more: fltplan.com/AwMPToQuickInfoEntry.exe?a=1 This one will give you the differences in travel time based on different headwinds or tailwinds. :) – Canuk Oct 8 '14 at 23:59

The main reason for the difference in time are trade winds.

Trade winds generally travel East to West, and so aircraft travelling in this direction have a faster ground speed, that is the speed relative to the ground. The true air speed of any aircraft is not affected by the wind.

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Also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jetstream – Michael Borgwardt Mar 21 '14 at 12:01

The jet stream moves from West to East. At the altitude an airliner flies the speed of the tail wind or head wind will have a significant impact on actual ground speed. This was first observed when B-29 bombing raids on Japan during WW2. Before that there was no notion of a 'jet stream'.

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Actually, the Japanese were aware of the jet stream already in the 1920s. They used it during WWII to send balloon bombs across the Pacific to the US: some of these made it as far as the Mid-West. – David Richerby Mar 21 '14 at 22:16
They never understood it the way it is understood today, although, yes, they did take advantage of it. They never once knew that it was a global phenomena. – user1698 Mar 22 '14 at 3:31
Well, obviously, knowledge has improved in the 90 years since then... But the Japanese understood in the 1920s that there are consistent, strong winds from west to east across the Pacific at the latitude of Japan so it's not true to say that the first observation of the jet stream was by Americans in the 1940s. – David Richerby Mar 22 '14 at 3:41

Both the winds and earth's rotation affect the difficulty of flight eastbound vs. westbound. If eastbound is slower and harder and winds carry you westbound, I take it you're within the tropics, where the tradewinds govern flight direction. Kentucky and Utah, and farther north latitude (and likewise south to Argentina) the winds work in the opposite direction.

The poles and equator differ in (eastward) rotation speed. The equator has farther to go and keeps up with the axis by going faster. So land nearer the axis (Canada, Argentina) takes it slow spinning east, slower than wind and weather. So that's where to take advantage of the winds eastbound. The tradewinds are at the equator, where the ground follows (east) a bigger circle, faster than wind and weather. There, the westbound is more efficient.

I'm not sure about Alabama/Arizona/etc, but I wager the eastbound and westbound are about the same, since they are in-between the north and tropics (and Bolivia the in-between of the southern hemisphere). The latitude makes quite a difference.

Unlike planes being pushed by wind, space shuttles leave the atmosphere. Being propelled only by earth's rotation, all rockets go east no matter the latitude.

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I'm finding this a bit confusing to follow... are you saying that rotation affects flight time apart from the wind? – fooot May 28 '15 at 21:56
Unlike planes being pushed by wind that's valid only if it is a tailwind – Federico May 28 '15 at 22:06
@Federico well a plane could be pushed in any direction. – fooot May 28 '15 at 22:25
@fooot he's using it in the sense of "push forward", see the propelled a few words later. – Federico May 28 '15 at 22:31

Without even looking at the winds I'd just add something like 20 kts ground speed if going east and subtract 20 kts ground speed if going west. Amazing how often that came close enough to actual flight plan.

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"winds ... add to ground speed going east" A quite practical answer. And it was a reliable heuristic when I did flight planning flying out of Texas. How does this not answer the question? More to the point, how is it wrong? Down voting is not about "liking" an answer. It's about correctness. If not the best answer then don't vote for it. But it's not wrong. And, if it is wrong then down voting w/out saying why is a dis-service to everyone who comes here for answers. – radarbob Jan 17 at 3:25
I did not down vote your answer, however I can see why some people would. The question is why do flight times differ, and you did not answer that question. While your answer is interesting and potentially useful (depending on the type of aircraft being flown), it does not answer the question that was asked (see How to Answer for more details). This would be better suited as a comment than an answer. – Lnafziger Jan 17 at 11:57
Well "the answer is wind." quoting above. But no one mentioned Matthew Fontaine Maury, what answer can be complete without starting with this guy? We can go on to how bombing Japan in the world war lead to the discovery of the jet stream. Your point about comment vs answer is well taken. – radarbob Jan 17 at 21:21
Right, and your answer does not say that the cause is the winds (although it makes one reference to it). How it was discovered isn't required in order to describe the physical phenomenon though. ;-) At any rate, I'm simply trying to offer a suggestion on how you can improve the answer since it hasn't been well received by the community. – Lnafziger Jan 18 at 2:23
don't get me wrong. This answer may be succinct but it is not insightful; winds? duh. My point is about down voting not the answer itself, which really blows. – radarbob Jan 18 at 13:34

It is simple. The Earth rotates from East to West. There is hence an eastward shear effect in the atmosphere. If you fly East, this shear adds to the cruising speed. Reverse case if you fly west. So more time if you fly westwards. But how much more depends on the prevailing wind-shear. This cannot be pre-determined except when you actually fly and meter the wind speed.

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Also, the question was actually for the opposite effect (prevailing winds are not in the same direction at all latitudes, so the Earth-rotation cause is quite indirect). – jcaron Jan 16 at 12:55

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