Q: So how much do these things weigh?
A 747’s maximum certified takeoff weight is in excess of 800,000 pounds, and the new Airbus A380 will break the million mark. A fully packed 757 might be 255,000 pounds, while a 50-passenger regional turboprop will top out around 50,000.
There are limits for the different operational regimes, including ones for sitting at the gate, taxiing, taking off and landing. But the constraining factor for a specific takeoff or landing, remember, is not necessarily the structural restriction of the plane. Runway length, temperature, wind, barometric pressure, etc., all can influence payload.
As most people know, smaller airports with smaller runways are generally served by smaller planes. But this is more a function of practicality than size, strictly speaking. While you’ll never see a 747 at La Guardia, that’s not to imply one couldn’t fly there. Rather, its payload would be so restricted by, to put it one way, the proximity of Flushing Bay as to render it economically unfeasible.
Because fuel loads are such a large percentage of overall weight, pilots rarely think of fuel in terms of gallons, but almost always as pounds. (Some quick metrics, just so you know: it’s about 6.7 pounds to the gallon. A kilo is 2.2 pounds and a gallon equates to 3.78 liters.) Everything from initial fueling to enroute burn is measured by weight, not volume. A fuel load of, say, 200,000 pounds may be a third or more of a widebody airplane’s sum heft.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.