Overall fuel efficiency of US airlines fails to improve on domestic routes during 2013, finds ICCT study
Frontier’s all-Airbus fleet notched up a 10% fuel efficiency improvement in 2013, finds ICCT (photo: DIA)
Wed 19 Nov 2014 – An annual performance study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) shows the fuel efficiency of United States carriers on domestic routes failed to improve in 2013 despite the high cost of aviation fuel and industry targets. In a league table of performance rankings, Alaska, Spirit and Frontier tied as the most fuel-efficient domestic carriers in 2013, whereas American Airlines, whose fuel efficiency fell by 1.5%, burned an estimated 27% more fuel than the three most efficient airlines to provide an equivalent level of transport service. As in its previous study, ICCT found little correlation between airline efficiency and profitability, and is concerned that as fuel prices steady or even fall there will even less incentive to make fuel efficiency gains.
Alaska and Spirit have consistently led the performance ranking since ICCT’s original baseline analysis of 2010 data, with Frontier overtaking Southwest Airlines due to a 10% one-year improvement. However, these gains were offset mainly by the larger legacy carriers, with American propping up the table.
With 2013 proving to be a profitable year for most US airlines, Alaska and Spirit also had the highest operating profit margins but the study found that even less efficient carriers like Allegiant were also able to reap high profits through using older, less efficient aircraft.
ICCT’s analysis shows the average annual fuel efficiency between 1990 and 2000 improved by 2.1%, improving to 2.8% during the tough decade of 2000 to 2010 and then fell back to 1.3% between 2010 and 2012.
Multiple factors, says the independent non-profit research organisation, help explain the slowdown. Load factors, which increased from 60% in 1990 to 82% in 2010, have flattened out in recent years and are not therefore contributing to efficiency gains.
Despite the raft of new order announcements from the aircraft manufacturers, ICCT says deliveries of new aircraft to US carriers have fallen sharply – more than 60% off their peak in the last decade – so that today only one in seven new aircraft are delivered domestically. With fewer deliveries, the US fleet has aged to almost 12 years on average last year. Although new re-engined and more fuel-efficient narrow-body Airbus and Boeing aircraft are on the horizon, relatively few new types have been brought to market over the past 15 years.
ICCT points to work at ICAO on a CO2 efficiency standard for new aircraft and a framework for a market-based incentive to cut airline carbon emissions as possible levers that will result in an improvement in fuel efficiency. With US domestic aviation carbon emissions making up one-quarter of the global total, the US Environmental Protection Agency has also announced its intent to move forward with an endangerment finding on aviation emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“Conventional wisdom says that fuel prices alone will be enough to drive airline efficiency, but that’s not what the data tells us,” commented ICCT’s Program Director for Aviation, Dan Rutherford. “This study highlights the need for international policies to address aviation emissions now that countries like China and the United States have announced their own commitments.”