Why flying can beat driving in terms of fuel efficiency

October 04, 2018
Rolls-Royce trent
Photo: Rolls-Royce

Get on a plane and chances are you’ll be using less fuel than when you drive your car thanks to efforts by the aviation industry to become more efficient.

Modern planes such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are about 20 percent more fuel efficient than the planes they are replacing and there are now enough technologically-advanced aircraft taking to the skies to be making a difference.

Newer aircraft families such as the Airbus A320neos, Boeing 737 MAXs, Boeing 787s and A350s now boast per-seat fuel burns of between 2 and 3 litres per 100km.

On a full aircraft — something no longer uncommon with passengers loads hitting record levels — the fuel burn  per passenger is also in this range.

READ Packed planes the new normal as airlines fill seats.

Of course, few airlines have an all-new fleet and many operate a mix that includes older, more fuel-hungry planes.

In a real world example, Europe’s giant Lufthansa Group announced earlier this year that the aircraft in its passenger fleet had set a new fuel efficiency record of 3.68 litres to transport a passenger 100 kilometres.

That was down from 3.85 litres per 100 passenger kilometres in 2016 and is about half what my modest Kia Cerato tells me I average when I drive alone.

It’s also less than the 4.2l/100km Toyota claims it gets from its latest Camry Ascent hybrid.

There are all sorts of factors that change this balance, including the number of passengers in the car, but it underscores the strides the aviation industry has made in recent decades.

This isn’t all about the environment: more efficient planes cost less to run, particularly when fossil fuel prices are rising like they are now.

Jetliners are now about 82 percent more efficient on a per-seat basis than they were during the days of the Comet 4 at the start of the jet age.

Fuel IATA efficiency aviation
Source: AirlineRatings

And manufacturers continue to tweak aircraft and engines to improve fuel consumption.

But airlines and other aviation industry players realized 10 years ago that improved aircraft alone would not be enough to give them the carbon-neutral growth they seek.

In 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis and a spike in oil prices,  industry leaders signed a world-first global declaration committing to a four-pillar action plan to reduce carbon emissions and achieve carbon-neutral growth.

This included investment in new technology such as advanced aircraft and biofuels as well as continuous improvements in operations.

There was also better use of infrastructure and a single global market-based measure.

“That was a daring goal,’’ International Air Transport Association director general told a sustainable aviation summit in Geneva this week.

“But with hard work and solid commitment of industry and government, carbon-neutral growth from 2020 will be a reality”

In 2009, IATA set the bar even higher with a goal to cut the industry’s net emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.

De Juniac noted  the Industry was already looking beyond 2020 and identified its  immediate priority as implementing a global carbon offset scheme aimed at facilitating carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was endorsed by the International Civil Aviation organization in 2016 but will initially be voluntary.

“Persuading more states to volunteer for CORSIA is important, de Juniac said.

“In tandem, we are working with governments to prevent actions that undermine the agreement, such as the unilateral implementation of environmental taxes.

“The ICAO Assembly next year provides an opportunity for governments to reaffirm CORSIA as the single global measure for aviation climate mitigation. It’s a top priority for CORSIA to be effective.”

In the longer term, de Juniac said the 50 per cent reduction in 2005 carbon emissions by 2050 would be an even greater challenge.

He predicted progress in technology, operations and infrastructure — especially air traffic management —  would match the fuel efficiency achievements of the past decade.

“We will not move forward on a consistent glide path, but we are on the right trajectory,’’ he said. “The industry is ready for the next step-change in technology in the 2030s: hybrid and electric planes, and the large-scale roll-out of sustainable fuels.”