How the Airlines Are Wasting Fuel

A few simple changes airlines could make to be greener.

June 25, 2008 — -- 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:

Take the same $901 one-way, non-stop flight from Portland, Ore., to Philadelphia on US Airways. It turns out you can also buy a one-way ticket from Portland to Baltimore on US Airways for $231 (the price discrepancy occurs because US Airways has to closely match prices of other airlines for this particular route if it wants any traffic). But look closely at that ticket — this flight actually stops in Philadelphia. But the airline says, you can't get off there (and, if you do, any checked baggage is still going to head for Baltimore).

If you take advantage of this and decide to get off in Philadelphia anyway ($669 savings), the airlines consider this stealing; but some might say the cost of that hefty "non-stop flight" is gouging, too. Is this a crazy system or what?

There has to be a better way for airlines to get a premium for non-stops without pricing those tickets out of reach for the increasing number of people who can't afford the premium and are willing to sacrifice time for cheaper prices (or worse).

I've got some ideas: Let's gather the best and the brightest together from the airline industry (and despite what has been happening in the past year, the executive suites are not lacking for brains) and see if we can work out a better way to save fuel without having to "collude" on pricing. In other words, I'd ask the airlines to help us help them in this matter. I think a lot of us would jump at the opportunity to "go green" and save the airlines some precious oil — but not if we have to pay three or four times as much for a "green" ticket as a more wasteful route.

Face it: Oil is creeping up to $150 a barrel and it might be sitting at that price for a long time to come (or maybe, in the fall, I'll be writing about oil at $200 a barrel). Let's do what we can to make this situation more tolerable now, before people quit flying.

Bottom line: we passengers are simple people — all we want to do is get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible with our luggage intact, for a decent price. Throw in the option of making these journeys a little greener, and a lot of us will be there for you.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.