By Irene Kwan and Daniel Rutherford, International Council on Clean Transportation
Very little public information is available about the fuel efficiency of international flights. This report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which funded the research on emissions from diesel passenger cars that ultimately led to the discovery of the “defeat devices” in Volkswagen vehicles and a massive international scandal, is the first public, transparent assessment of the fuel efficiency of the top 20 airlines operating non-stop trans-Atlantic flights between America and Europe.
According to the research, in 2014, the low-cost Norwegian Air Shuttle was the most fuel-efficient airline on trans-Atlantic routes, on average providing 40 passenger kilometres per litre (pax-km/l) of fuel on its predominantly Boeing 787-8 fleet. Airberlin was second, with a fuel efficiency of 35 pax-km/l, followed by Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline (34 pax-km/l).
The least efficient airlines were Lufthansa German Airlines and SAS Scandinavian Airlines (28 pax-km/l each), and British Airways (27 pax-km/l). Delta Air Lines, which had the largest trans-Atlantic market share of any carrier, and Icelandair had the industry average efficiency of 32 pax-km/l. [See table]
There is a fuel efficiency gap of 51% between the most-efficient Norwegian Air Shuttle and the least-efficient British Airways. The very high fuel efficiency of the Norwegian carrier demonstrates the central role of technology in cutting CO2 emissions in aviation. Airlines that invest in new, advanced aircraft are significantly better off than those that use older, less efficient aircraft. The gap in fuel efficiency also underscores the large and underestimated potential for cutting CO2 emissions in aviation.
Operational factors — of which seating configuration is a dominant driver — also have a strong impact on fuel efficiency. A higher proportion of first and business class seating is associated with lower fuel efficiency on a passenger kilometre basis. Premium seating accounted for only 14% of available seat kilometres on trans-Atlantic flights in 2014, but was responsible for approximately a third of emissions, assuming that first and business class seats are on average three times as carbon intensive as economy.
ICCT, which works worldwide including in India, describes itself as an “independent non profit organisation founded to provide first-rate, unbiased research and technical and scientific analysis to environmental regulators” with the aim “to improve the environmental performance and energy efficiency of road, marine, and air transportation, in order to benefit public health and mitigate climate change”.
The research on fuel efficiency of airlines is significant also because improved data reporting would help travellers concerned about their carbon footprint make more informed purchasing decisions, and help policymakers craft policies to reduce the environmental impact of flying. Commercial aviation transports more than 3 billion passengers and 47 million metric tonnes of freight annually. In 2013, aircraft emitted about 700 million metric tonnes of CO2 globally, and a tripling of emissions is expected by 2050 under business-as-usual scenarios.