Westbound Red Eye Flights

Q: Why do our “red eye” flights always go westbound and not the other way? And why do all flights to Europe depart in the evening and land in the morning?

The red-eye departures leave West Coast cities in the late evening (around 10 or 11 p.m.), and arrive on the East Coast at sunrise. In order to land on the West Coast at sunrise, however, a plane would need to take off from an Eastern city at around 3:30 a.m. There would not be a large market for this service. (Leaving the East Coast at 11 p.m., we’d be landing out west at about 2 a.m. Same story.) It’s a function of the time change, and thus it’s impossible to run a true red-eye in this direction, in which you depart in the evening and arrive in the morning.

From the US to Europe, almost all flights are red-eyes because morning landings allow passengers to connect onward. A large number of people are merely transiting the first arrival city, bound for intra-European, African, or Middle Eastern destinations. After touching down, a plane sits briefly, changes crews and supplies, and then re-crosses the Atlantic, getting back to the States in the afternoon and allowing plenty of time for connections. This system makes for very effective utilization of the aircraft and is convenient for most passengers.

There are a few daylight flights to Europe. Leaving New York or Boston in the morning, a British Airways flight will get you to London by about 8 p.m.


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.