The ins and outs of airline fuel – and how it affects you – Feb 2014

If Canadians are grumpy at the gas station, they should spare a thought to the airlines. Imagine the impact of an increase in few cents per litre when your gas tank (if you are flying a Boeing 777) holds 117,340 litres.


Fuel is a carrier’s second largest expense, after labour. So airlines keep a very steady watch on prices (some hedging their fuel costs) and the variables affecting their fuel consumption.

How many variables are there in pricing a ticket?  Just like an old clunker of a car, older aircraft are less fuel efficient (note just days ago the last scheduled flight of the famously un-fuel efficient DC 10 took place).  As well as the age of the aircraft, how large is it? How long is the route – aircraft use more fuel on take-off, so in theory fewer short flights are good…but then you’ve got to take off with a full and heavy load of fuel on a long flight. How many passengers are typically on board on that exact flight at that time on that day of the week, with how much luggage? And – perhaps most crucial of all – what is your competition charging?


No wonder that the airlines are very keen to reduce fuel costs. These efforts include replacing old guzzlers with fuel-efficient equipment,  perhaps with new,lighter catering carts; “winglets” – the upright fins at the end of the wingtip which deliver a more aerodymanic performance; lighter, thinner seats; smaller potable water tanks; and the always-dreaded more seats per aircraft.

In flight, pilots on some carriers are instructed to slow down cruise speeds, while on the ground the aircraft may be connected to ground electrical power faster, cutting down the need to idle. Engines are washed more frequently and dents, which may increase drag, are repaired faster.


Air Canada has improved its fuel efficiency by 30 per cent since 1990; and with the delivery of 37 ultra-efficient B787s slated for this year, the airline is posed to have among the most fuel-efficient long haul fleet in the world.


In the US, Alaska Airlines enjoys the position as the most fuel-efficient airline. (Of the larger carriers: Continental = #4, United = #8; Delta = #11; American = #14). As with all carriers, being fuel-efficient has a green side benefit: Alaska also uses bio-degradable cutlery and napkins, and has installed solar-power boarding ramps. And of course new aircraft help: their fleet comprises many newer B737s and Bombardier turboprops.


IATA (the International Air Transport Association) has a fuel action campaign. Member airlines have adopted a goal of reduction of at least 25 per cent fuel use by 2020, compared to 2005. As its website points out, if the A380 and B787 reach their goals of 3 liters per 100 passenger km, they’ll achieve better fuel efficiency than a compact car.