Overall industry progress as Alaska, Spirit, Frontier and Southwest again lead ICCT's US airline fuel efficiency rankings
Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900
Fri 23 Oct 2015 – For the second year running, Alaska, Spirit, Frontier and Southwest remained the top four most fuel-efficient airlines on US domestic operations in 2014, according to the annual rankings study carried out by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). After slowing in recent years, overall industry fuel efficiency improved by 1.7% from 2013 to 2014 on a revenue passenger mile (RPM) basis, largely as a result of a 1% gain in passenger load and 1.6% increase in seating density. Airlines also implemented fleet renewal programmes that for the first time since 2010 slightly reduced the average age of aircraft used on domestic flights to 11.5 years. One clear trend is the slowly but steadily increasing number of seats per aircraft, or upgauging, which has the effect of increasing fuel efficiency but, points out ICCT, at the cost of reduced passenger comfort and access to flights.
“Our 2013 study showed no net fuel efficiency improvement on US domestic passenger flights. The 1.7% efficiency improvement in 2014 is largely in line with industry’s voluntary climate targets,” commented ICCT’s Dan Rutherford, one of the authors of the report. “The data suggests that these improvements came largely from putting more seats on each plane and reducing the number of flights, rather than through the use of more efficient aircraft.”
In 2010, there were 145 seats on an average US domestic flight flown by mainline carriers. In 2013, this number rose to 149 and reached 150 in 2014. For example, the popular Airbus A320 aircraft on average carried 153 passengers in 2014, up from 148 passengers in 2010 and, according to both Airbus and Boeing, the trend is expected to continue.
“The approach increases load factors but reduces flight frequency and the number of airports served. Overall, travellers experience these changes as reduced comfort, longer wait times and fewer destinations,” said Rutherford. “If consumers start to push back, these gains may turn out to be unsustainable.”
With all the major airlines profitable in 2014, ICCT observed a stronger correlation between fuel efficiency and profitability in 2014 than was evident in 2013, despite a sharp fall in oil prices in the latter half of the year that could be expected to weaken the link between fuel efficiency and profitability.
Alaska and Spirit, the two most efficient airlines in 2014, for the fifth year in a row, have also been the most profitable on US operations since 2011. Carriers such as American Airlines and Virgin America, which came last in ICCT’s 2014 efficiency rankings were still able to remain profitable despite having more fuel-intensive operations.
Alaska again renewed its fleet in 2014, including the addition of 10 new Boeing 737-900 aircraft. It has also added split-scimitar winglets to 48 of its planned deliveries, which is expected to improve aircraft fuel efficiency by 1.5%. The airline continues to lead in domestic fuel efficiency by providing a combination of mobility (passenger miles travelled) and access (destinations reached and/or flight frequency) in a fuel-efficient manner, commends ICCT in its report.
Despite operating the least efficient US domestic flights once again in 2014, American Airlines’ absolute fuel efficiency improved substantially from 2013, consuming 5% less fuel per RPM and 3% less fuel on a typical flight. The carrier phased out its Boeing 767-200 aircraft and removed 17 of its older MD-80 aircraft from the fleet. These improvements helped close the gap between the best and worst performers in the rankings to 25%, compared with 27% in 2013.
Next year’s study will report on the impact of American’s merger with US Airways, the latter carrier having climbed from tenth place in 2013 to seventh place in 2014 as a result of maintaining an 84% load factor while replacing older, smaller aircraft with newer, larger types.
Despite both airlines experiencing a 2% overall increase in passenger load factors compared to 2013, the fuel efficiencies of Delta Air Lines and Virgin America worsened considerably in 2014, causing them to lose ground relative to others. Although still a comparatively young fleet, ICCT suggests in Virgin America’s case that this may be due to not adding to it in 2014. Virgin America and Allegiant were the only two airlines in the rankings that did not make any fleet changes in 2014.
According to Rutherford, ICCT is expecting to release next month its first international rankings of the top 20 carriers serving the transatlantic market.
ICCT Fuel Efficiency Scores* (FES) by airline for US domestic operations in 2014:
* The FES is an ICCT unitless fuel efficiency metric that indicates the transport service provided by an airline per unit fuel consumed relative to other airlines. A higher FES denotes higher fuel efficiency and a FES of 1.00 represents the average airline in 2014.