Ever Wondered?

Do Frequent Fliers Age More Slowly?

According to Einstein's theory of relativity, air travel and time travel are intertwined.

October 20, 2010

You’re squeezed into a middle seat, two rows from the back of the plane. It’s barely two hours into your cross-country flight, though you’d swear it’s been longer. Does it just seem like the minutes of your trip are crawling by — or does time actually pass more slowly for people who are mid-flight than for people on the ground?

Many of us have heard the idea that time doesn’t pass at the same rate for everyone. It’s a common narrative in science fiction, one that has its roots in Einstein’s theory of relativity. The story starts, let’s say, with two twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other clambers aboard a rocket that’s making a round-trip journey, at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, to a planet in a not-too-distant solar system. When the traveling twin returns to earth, he’s aged more slowly, and now he’s younger than the twin who stayed behind.

This familiar — and paradoxical — plotline comes from a particular tenet of relativity theory known as time dilation. It predicts that a fast-moving clock will tick at a slower rate than a stationary one — or, a man on an interstellar voyage will age more slowly than his twin back on Earth. But time dilation also says that velocity isn’t the only thing that affects the rate at which clocks tick, or people age; gravity does, too. A clock in a stronger gravitational field (the Earth’s surface, let’s say) will have a slower tick rate than a clock subject to weaker gravity (such as a few miles up into the atmosphere).

Scientists have shown that time dilation doesn’t just happen on near-speed-of-light journeys. Physicist Chin-Wen Chou and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology lab in Boulder, Colorado, have used super-accurate optical clocks to show that tick rates change at speeds as slow as 25 miles per hour and height differences as small as a foot.

So if time dilation occurs under these everyday conditions, is the slowed-down aging experienced by the space-faring twin also experienced — in a much subtler way — by that more familiar airborne traveler, the frequent flier? A cross-country flight is a slow-moving, brief trip compared to the odyssey of flying off to another planet, sure, but you’re still going a lot faster than someone who’s not traveling at all.

People on commercial flights are subject to both predictions of time dilation, Chou points out. They’re going fast, at speeds of around 500 miles an hour, and because they’re about six miles from the ground, they’re also feeling a weaker gravitational pull. So do airline passengers age more slowly, since they’re traveling at high speeds? Or do they age more quickly, since they’re subject to less gravity?

Chou did the math, and it turns out that frequent fliers actually age the tiniest bit more quickly than those of us with both feet on the ground. Planes travel at high enough altitudes that the weak gravitational field speeds up the tick rate of a clock on board more than the high speeds slow it down.

The difference is so small, however, that even the most tireless jet setters don’t have to worry about extra wrinkles. Consider an extreme case of the commercial air passenger: Ryan Bingham, the constantly traveling businessman played by George Clooney in “Up in the Air.” By the time Bingham racked up those 10 million frequent flier miles, Chou calculated, he’d aged only 59 microseconds more than his colleagues back in Omaha.

About the Author

Valerie Ross

Valerie Ross studied cognitive neuroscience and creative writing at Stanford University. While it was her fascination with understanding and explaining the mind and brain that first got her interested in science writing, Valerie has now written about everything from the neuroscience of memory to drug-resistant bacteria to general relativity. She has interned with Scientific American Mind, Discover, and Popular Mechanics.



Richard says:

How does the gravitational pull change for those inside the plane while in a controlled environment and the plane’s resisting gravity as it’s flying?

Matt says:

It seems intuitive that something totally external to your environment shouldn’t affect you, but General Relativity is not particularly intuitive ;)

The fact that the plane is generating lift to counteract gravity doesn’t affect the passage of time. General relativity only cares about the presence of a gravitational field (curved space time) and how strong (curved) it is. That’s what alters the passage of time. When you’re farther away from the earth, the gravitational field is slightly weaker (although that’s _not_ why astronauts are weightless in space).

Phase shifting says:

Do people skip dimensions, after a few secs or minutes of time delay. Since the clocks should be slowly falling behind in stronger gravitational zones

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