Consultant report

Evaluating air carrier fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions in the U.S. airline industry

In light of volatile fuel prices, rising concern over climate change, and the global economic importance of aviation, developing the capability to evaluate airline fuel efficiency is critical. Policy makers, industry stakeholders, and the general public require that information to assess the status quo and evaluate apparent trends, and to shape future strategies for improving efficiency.

To that end, the International Council on Clean Transportation sponsored this study by researchers affiliated with the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR) at the University of California, Berkeley. Focused on the year 2010, it assesses the fuel efficiency of mainline airlines in the United States.

The study employs ratio-based, deterministic, and stochastic frontier approaches to investigate fuel efficiency among 15 large jet operators. Given the hub-and-spoke routing structure and the consequent affiliation between mainline and regional carriers, the analysis considers not only fuel efficiency of individual mainline airlines but also the joint efficiency of each mainline and its regional subsidiaries, as well as fuel efficiency of mainline carriers in transporting passengers from their origins to destinations.

Key findings:

  1. Airline fuel consumption is highly correlated with, and largely explained by, the amount of revenue passenger miles and flight departures it produces
  2. Depending on the methodology applied, average airline fuel efficiency for the year 2010 is 9%–20% less than that of the most efficient carrier, while the least efficient carriers are 25%–42% less efficient than the industry leaders
  3. Efficiency rankings vary depending on the methodology, but nonetheless display high correlation
  4. Regional carriers have two opposing effects on fuel efficiency of mainline airlines: increased fuel per revenue passenger mile but improved accessibility provision
  5. The net effect of routing circuity on fuel efficiency is small
  6. Potential cost savings from improved efficiency for mainline airlines can reach $2–$3 billion in 2010