How the Airlines Are Wasting Fuel


A little perspective, please: Back when fuel first hit $4 a gallon at the pumps, some clever blogger noted that a gallon of black "printing cartridge" ink would cost about $2,700 — and if you fancied a gallon of Chanel No. 5 for someone special, you'd pay more than $25,000.

Doesn't really make you feel better, though, does it?

It sure doesn't make the airlines feel any better: For them, every drop of jet fuel is precious — and with the way prices are rising, it's becoming more and more precious every day. Yet, these same airlines are (unintentionally) wasting fuel. And, we, the passengers, are unwittingly helping them do this.

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More passengers each day are opting for cheaper connecting flights.

Gas friendly trips — with non-stop flights that use less fuel than trips with multi-stops — are an airline's premium product, simply because consumers want them because they save precious travel time. Face it, we all want to fly direct if we can — but because non-stops are a premium product, they cost more. Fine — most of us are willing to pay something extra for this product, but we do have our limits. Unfortunately, the price tag for this premium product does not seem to have a limit.

Recently, I have noticed that the gap in prices for non-stops vs. connecting flights has widened to the point where many travelers simply won't consider non-stop flights.

Example: a trip from Portland, Ore. to Philadelphia. US Airways has the only non-stop flight. If you plan to be on this flight in September, the cheapest one-way, non-stop is $901. Or, you could add a stop and pay just $162 one-way on United. The non-stop route will be about 2,400 miles; the connecting route could add 300 to 600 miles to that. But, I ask you, if given the choice, would you pay a one-way fare of $901 — or $162 (one-way)?

Unwittingly, non-stop "Airline A" is pushing passengers to connecting "Airline B" because "B's" prices are much more reasonable — but by flying with "Airline B" those passengers are burning more fuel. This is happening all across the U.S. domestic route system as airlines push former non-stop passengers to their competitors (or their own) connecting flights — in a vicious cycle.

Simply put, the more passengers that are "unnecessarily" in the air at a given time is yet another way that planes waste fuel (more passengers = more weight = more fuel consumed). Of course, this would be a non-issue if all flights were 100 percent full — but they aren't.

Okay, so "Airline B" is less "green" in this case; but it was going to fly anyway, so what does it matter if more passengers than "necessary" are in the air for longer periods of time?

The answer to that, again, is — every drop of fuel counts. After all, airlines are already doing things like trading old drink carts for new, light-weight models, flying five miles an hour slower, removing "extra" lavatories and tossing out those "oh-so-heavy" magazines — they wouldn't be doing this, if they didn't think it had real fuel-saving benefits.

But, wait, it gets worse: This wide-gap in non-stop vs. connecting pricing is leading us passengers into temptation — maybe not temptation to commit illegal acts, but certainly unethical ones (or so say the airlines). I'm talking about "hidden city" trips. It works like this:

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