Can We Squeeze Any More Fuel Out Of Air Travel?

Airlines are rushing to adapt to rising fuel costs, but most efficiency gains have already been made. If gas prices continue to rise, it may require a full rethinking of how we fly.


A funny thing happens to airplanes when oil prices rocket and governments start pricing carbon: People get innovative, and fast. The airline industry–one of the most affected by both of those developments–is seeing a host of efficiency design innovations
go from drawing board to flight within a few years. The same light,
super-strong materials used in race cars have found their way into
planes. Re-engineered engines are turning every drop of extra fuel into
thrust. And satellites may soon be directing air-traffic systems,
allowing airlines to fly shorter routes.

Airlines are doing anything they can to hedge against higher fuel prices. American Airlines placed a record  $20 billion order for 460 new slimmed-down jets with efficiency gains as high as 15% through new engine designs, airframes, weight reduction, and aerodynamic improvements. The cost of buying new efficient planes today, it seems, are less than what the airlines expect to pay in fuel and operating costs tomorrow.

There’s billions on the line in this efficiency race, but most of the easy gains have been made. The average fuel burned per thousand passenger miles dropped from 46 gallons in 1980 to only 22 today, according to an AP analysis of Department of Transportation data. But these new improvements may only get that number down to 18 gallons. Yet PhysOrg reports that fuel costs now account for 32% of an airline’s operating budget, compared just 15% a decade ago. New technologies coming online–from aerodynamic improvements such as wing tip extensions called “winglets” to lowering the weight of everything from catering carts to seat covers–can help reduce that percentage.

Still, it may not be possible to make radical gains. The hyper-competitive airline industry has relentlessly focused on efficiency for years, so big new improvements are going to be extremely difficult to find. Alaska Airlines is now the most efficient U.S. carrier, although all the other airlines aren’t far apart, and are partially limited by the types of planes and flights in their fleet. Without a radical rethinking of air travel, this may be the most efficient planes can get.

But airlines are still staring into the abyss of high oil prices. Whoever saves fuel will probable survive where others perish.

[Image: Flickr user thragor]


Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.


About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)