Airplanes vs Cars on Energy Efficiency

February 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

According to a recent report by the International Air Transport Association, the number of airplane passengers is likely to grow by a third in the next four years, to 3.9 billion. As more and more people travel greater distances, often as a matter of routine, the issue of energy efficiency of different modes of transport has been investigated by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, with some interesting results. While people tend to think that driving a car is easier on the environment that flying in an airplane, the advanced technology of new airplanes is making them increasingly fuel-efficient.

To match the fuel-efficiency of some newer airplanes, cars would need to be able to get 33.8 miles per gallon, or carry more than one passenger. Current average fuel consumption is 23.8 miles per gallon, meaning that fuel-efficiency must improve by as much as 57 percent to challenge the performance of commercial airline flights. Also, current number of people per car is 1.38, which should be increased to at least 2.3 people to improve fuel-efficiency data for cars. While car-pooling is a concept long embraced by environmentally (and cost conscious) people, there are still a large percentage of cars that travel with only the driver in them, whereas airplanes are generally crammed to the limit with passengers.

Due to huge price increases over the past decade or so, fuel remains the single largest expense for airlines. Associated Press reports that in 2013, US airlines spent up to $50 billion on fuel. In the past five years airlines have been replacing older airplanes with the latest model airplanes from aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, designed to be 15 percent more fuel-efficient than before. In fact, the purchase of new aircraft has been at a higher rate than ever before, with 8,200 being ordered in the past five years. Currently up to 24 planes are manufactured each week, an impressive increase over the 11 per week of a decade ago.

While increased fuel efficiency, reliability and extended range are all motivating factors in the recent airplane buying spree, there are other reasons airlines are upgrading their fleets. Some of the old planes still have ashtrays in the arms of the seats, which clearly are redundant now, plus passengers expect the modern amenities such as power outlets and USB ports that older airplanes don’t have.

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