Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


April 29, 2006

The High Cost of Airline Travel

Category: Economics,Save Fuel,Technology,Transportation – Tom Harrison – 10:49 pm

As the price of oil rises we’re seeing many economic impacts. The airlines, of course are getting hit hard — a story from today’s USA Today reports:

Airlines are being creamed by the latest hike in fuel costs. Airline watcher Terry Trippler of Cheapseats.com says it now costs $103,400 to fill a Boeing 747-400 for a flight to Asia, up from $48,000 two years ago. That works out to $253, one way, for each of the 408 seats — more, he notes, than the $227, not including taxes, he recently paid for a Northwest flight from Detroit to Tokyo.

Seems like a lot of money, doesn’t it?

So actually, that’s not bad mileage. According to this page a 747 gets about 100 Miles Per Gallon Per Person. Well, that’s a fully loaded plane going the longest distance. I found a more realistic report from Tufts Climate Initiative that gives an overall average of a little more than 48 miles per gallon per seat. Still, not bad mileage. And for total carbon emissions, airplanes are comparable to cars.

But … airplanes are used to fly long distances. So you might feel OK about flying, but a cross-country US round-trip is around 5500 miles, or about 120 gallons of fuel. So an average car (getting 25 Mpg) running an average year (@12,000 miles per year) uses 480 gallons. So one cross-country trip adds 25% to your travel fuel consumption for a year.

In my previous job, my Boston-based company was purchased by a San Francisco company. I flew out and back an average of once every three weeks, or about 2,000 gallons per year over whatever else I used. We tried to use video conferencing, email, IM and other technologies, but in reality, running a company in multiple locations is just incredibly inefficient. In my current job, I have not yet, in three years and counting, flown for the business.

Airlines are struggling now. Fuel efficiency is an important consideration. And don’t even think beyond the simple use of fuel — research shows that the water vapor left by jet engines (contrails) create an unnatural dynamic in the atmosphere that compounds the raw effect of pumping huge amounts of carbon into the air. And because jet fuel is basically kerosene, it creates a lot of soot and smoke. Here’s a more sanguine view of the ravages of air travel from George Monbiot:

As far as climate change is concerned, this is an utter, unparalleled disaster. It’s not just that aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of aircraft fuel has a ‘radiative forcing ratio’ of around 2.7(11). What this means is that the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. The water vapour they produce forms ice crystals in the upper troposphere (vapour trails and cirrus clouds) which trap the earth’s heat. According to calculations by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, if you added the two effects together (it urges some caution as they are not directly comparable), aviation’s emissions alone would exceed the government’s target for the country’s entire output of greenhouse gases in 2050 by around 134%(12). The government has an effective means of dealing with this. It excludes international aircraft emissions from the target.

So, don’t fly if you don’t have to. Take a train or a bus for shorter trips. And heck, take a train or bus to work instead of driving. Or ride your bike!

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