Geographically longer paths may require less fuel than the shortest (great circle) path. But what about time ?

Is the most fuel efficient route always the one that has the aircraft in the air for the shortest amount of time (assuming equal speed setting, e.g. LRC) , or not ?

Users here seem split on this question:

« The most fuel efficient route is the one that has the aircraft in the air for the shortest amount of time. » (source)


« It's possible that the route that results in the smallest fuel burn is not the necessarily the route that takes the least time. That's true more often than not, but if to get the most favorable winds you had to stay low, you might burn more fuel. » (source)

So which one is it ?
And, if possible, please provide a clear explanation why.

  • $\begingroup$ FYI, I removed the PBN tag from a couple of your questions because it means something very specific about navigation performance, not aircraft performance. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ At the extreme, the route with lesser fuel use is the one where you can glide on the maximum distance. Hence not necessarily the quickest. Note that airliners actually glide during their descent, specially on continuous descent approaches. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 13:00

2 Answers 2


Generally, the least time in the air the better, but it's mostly a maximum miles per gallon over the earth thing and this depends on winds. In the time/fuel burn equation, there is always a "sweet spot", a speed/power configuration that gives the most miles per gallon for "air distance" traveled, but how this translates to a maximum distance covered for a given amount of fuel depends on the headwind/tailwind component.

If headwinds are strong, the most efficient speed may be faster than what is optimal for winds that are light or there is a tailwind. It's easy to see if you take it to the extreme; imagine you are in an airplane that cruises most efficiently at 50 mph and can go 80 mph. Most miles per gallon air distance is at 50, but if you have a 50 mph headwind, you aren't going anywhere are you, and your actual miles per gallon is 0. Dial that ridiculous example back to something more reasonable and you can see that there are subtle variations with winds that have to be taken into account.

Generally speaking if there is nil wind or a tail wind, you would fly at the most efficient miles per gallon speed but with a really strong tailwind it might be better to slow down even more for best earth miles per gallon. If there is a headwind, the optimal speed might be little faster than the max air miles per gallon speed to use the least fuel to get there.

There was an incident once where an RJ crew had to do an IFR diversion with the flaps stuck at 45 degrees and the crew had to decide what speed to fly at, limited to flap extension speed and with all that drag, taking into account whatever headwind/tailwind they had. They landed at their alternate with 500 lbs on board, about 10 minutes worth. Talk about pressure to get your calculations right...


Just a quick answer as I don’t have much time: second quote is (usually) corect.

Specific fuel consumption will indicate how many miles you are getting for your galon, but even then it is not so simple.It all depends on what you consider fixed and what parameters of the flight you are allowed to change:

If you take winds into account, then a longer route might end up getting sooner to the destination, or save up some fuel for the same trip time,should you choose to fly slower.

If cruise level is a factor, then flying higher will get you there slower (same mach at higher level) but using less fuell overall (better specific consumption)

If you can alter both track to pick better winds, and both cruise level to pick better fuel consumptions, then all bets are off: best fuel is best fuel, not necessary the shortest nor fastest.


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