Airline fuel efficiency gains not keeping pace with rapid growth in passenger traffic and emissions, finds studies
Wed 20 Dec 2017 – Fuel efficiency gains and fleet modernisation have failed to keep pace with overall growth in aircraft carbon emissions as a result of the rapid increase in air passenger travel, finds two reports monitoring airline performance. In its annual ranking of the carbon efficiency of 200 of the world’s largest airlines that are responsible for 92 per cent of worldwide air traffic, German organisation atmosfair says global CO2 emissions increased by 4 per cent in the past year, while the kilometres flown rose by almost 7 per cent. It says airlines are only modernising their fleets at a slow pace with just 1 per cent of aircraft worldwide classified as highly fuel efficient. A study by US NGO the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found a sharp increase in passenger traffic drove up both profits and fuel consumption on US domestic airline operations between 2014 and 2016.
Atmosfair says even the best performing airline fleets emit on average 20% more CO2 per kilometre than the most fuel efficient planes operating at full capacity such as the Airbus A350-900 or Boeing 787-9. A fleet with only a medium level of efficiency in technology and operations releases twice as much carbon than the most fuel efficient aircraft. These new aircraft models, which can achieve consumption values of less than 3.5 litres of kerosene per 100 passengers, have raised the bar considerably in terms of carbon efficiency, it says.
Airlines that have not updated their fleets or have only made small improvements have lost ground in its latest 2017 ranking, notes atmosfair. The Atmosfair Airline Index is based on the CO2 emissions of an airline per passenger-kilometre flown on all routes, and calculated using the aircraft type, engines, use of winglets and seating and freight capacity, as well as occupancy. The efficiency index is intended to be used by travellers to compare airlines when planning their flight.
The highest ranking airlines in the index will therefore be those with the most modern fleets with high seating densities and high passenger and cargo loads. Differences among airlines on the same route can be substantial, says atmosfair, with fuel consumption per passenger-kilometre possibly being twice as high for one airline than for another.
UK charter airline TUI Airways (formerly Thomson Airways) once again topped the index, reaching 80% of the technically achievable optimum. Its German counterpart TUIFly ranked third, with regional carrier China West Air in second place in the overall ranking.
European and Chinese airlines performed well, says atmosfair, with South America’s LATAM ranked as the best international net carriers as a result of its modern fleet and high rate of occupancy. US carriers performed less well overall with only three – Alaska, Delta and United – making it into the top 50 airlines in the world.
For the 2015-2016 period, Alaska Airlines was also ranked by ICCT as the most fuel efficient on US domestic operations for the seventh year in a row, while the gap between it and the least efficient carrier, Virgin America, in 2016 widened slightly to 26%.
Between 2014 and 2016, ICCT calculates overall passenger-kilometres on US domestic operations rose by 10%, outstripping a 3% overall improvement in fuel efficiency, causing fuel use and CO2 emissions to jump by 7%.
“Industry-wide, demand is swamping energy efficiency improvements and emissions are spiking as a result,” said ICCT’s Naya Olmer, lead author of the study. Since 2012, the average profit margin for US domestic carriers has increased nearly six-fold thanks to lower fuel prices and higher ancillary fees, finds ICCT, and those carriers saved around $17 billion in fuel costs last year, about 20% of which was passed on to passengers in lower fares.
Around 30% of global CO2 emissions are attributable to US aircraft and the FAA projects aviation activity to increase 2-3% annually through to 2037.
“With airline profits surging, we need to explore environmental and consumer protection if the US is going to cap aviation carbon emissions from 2020, as it has committed to do,” commented Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s aviation Program Director and co-author of the study.
Said Dietrich Brockhagen, CEO of atmosfair: “Our findings show that aviation worldwide is not on track to meet the 1.5 degree or the 2 degree target for global warming. While some airlines have significantly improved their carbon efficiency by purchasing new aircraft, the pace of modernisation is not fast enough from a global standpoint.”
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