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Which commercial aircraft, when fully loaded with fuel (and passengers and luggage up to its max takeoff weight), could stay in the air the longest without landing, and how long could it stay in the air? What conditions would it need to have maximum possible endurance if the plane had no intended destination to land or particular flight path? (This is for a fictional story.)

Note: I was thinking commercial jetliners when I wrote that, and I still am, but I was accidentally unclear about it. That's preferably what I'm looking for, though.

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    $\begingroup$ You just wait until the start making commercial Solar Impulses. $\endgroup$ – Gallifreyan Apr 30 '17 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ A bit of a side note: These guys are a civilian commercial outfit that does refueling (on contract to the military mostly) but still counts as a commercial aircraft. Im not sure if the refueling tank is connected to the main system but if it is I assume it can stay aloft for some time more than a regular aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Dave May 1 '17 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ The Goodyear blimp? $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden May 1 '17 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ Is a space shuttle considered an aircraft? $\endgroup$ – user3528438 May 1 '17 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ Having recently read some novels in which the aircraft operations descriptions were rather sketchy (I'm looking at you, Clive Cussler), I appreciate that you're attempting to get some reality into your story! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan May 1 '17 at 11:46
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If you mean a jetliner, then it's easy.

Airliners more or less fly at the same speed, so the longest range ones would typically have the longest endurance.

The longest range airliners currently are the Boeing 777-200LR and the Airbus A340-500.

Airplane     Range       Payload          Speed      Duration est.

777-200LR    15,840 km   317 passengers   892 km/h   17.8 hours
A340-500     16,670 km   293 passengers   871 km/h   19.1 hours

The Wikipedia article Longest flights may be of interest.


This may or may not assist in your story, but there are two ways to increase the endurance:

  1. Fly slower, and/or
  2. Shut down one engine and increase the power of the other(s)1.

Both 1 and 2 may require flying lower, and both will hurt the range.


1 Explained in the last part of this answer, but in short it's because jet engines have the lowest fuel flow per unit thrust when they are running at near their maximum continuous thrust setting.

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    $\begingroup$ But an airliner will presumably fly slower than that if the aim is to maximise the time in the air. $\endgroup$ – TonyK Apr 30 '17 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Brilsmurfffje: cruise speed is the most economical speed for a given distance. If you throttle down from cruise speed, you go slower but you use less fuel per second. $\endgroup$ – TonyK Apr 30 '17 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonC - it's not easy to fully explain in a comment, but on an actual long range flight, the plane will keep climbing the more it burns fuel and gets lighter. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Apr 30 '17 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonC - sorry, wanted it to be concise, but if you liked that chart, check this post ;) $\endgroup$ – ymb1 May 1 '17 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonC - in most cases they load what they need + some for contingencies, check here. It's very rarely full tanks. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 May 1 '17 at 14:04
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A commercial airship, like the 'Zeppelin NT' can stay airborne for 24 hours.

The record (for a military US-Navy blimp in the 1950s) is 264 hours, 12 min. It covered more than 13,000 km.

Record flight of 8,216 miles in 264 hours. Lakehurst NJ to west Africa to Key West FL non-stop. (Source)

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