Legacy carriers with high premium seating fare badly in first fuel efficiency study of transatlantic routes
Tue 17 Nov 2015 – Analysis comparing the fuel efficiency of top 20 airlines on transatlantic routes finds a sizeable gap between the most and least efficient carriers, with low-cost Norwegian comfortably leading the table, which is propped up by major legacy carriers British Airways, SAS and Lufthansa. Seating configuration and the number of first and business class seats, plus the fuel burn of the aircraft operated, are the two most important factors influencing airline fuel efficiency. Together they explain about 80% of the variation in efficiency among the airlines studied by the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT). Other drivers of efficiency such as passenger load factors and freight carriage were found to be relatively less important.
ICCT has carried out analysis of the most fuel efficient carriers on domestic routes in the United States for the past four years, and found a gap of 25% between the best and worst performers in 2014. However, it estimates the transatlantic efficiency gap for the same year to be around double that at 51%. The three least efficient airlines were collectively responsible for one-fifth of transatlantic available seat kilometres (ASKs) and burned 44% to 51% more fuel per passenger kilometre than the most efficient, Norwegian.
With a predominant fleet of new, advanced Boeing 787-8 aircraft, Norwegian’s overall average fuel efficiency was 40 passenger-kilometres per litre (pax-km/l), attaining 42 pax-km/l on its most prominent route between Oslo and New York JFK. At 86%, the carrier’s efficiency also benefits from a high load factor and a below average (11%) prevalence of business and first class seats. Although facing opposition from some quarters in the US, Norwegian is seeking to expand its transatlantic services and last week was granted an operating licence by the UK authorities that allows it access to bilateral rights to new destinations in Asia, South America and South Africa.
Other airlines that performed above the industry average of 32 pax-km/l were Airberlin (35 pax-km/l) and Aer Lingus (34 pax-km/l), followed by KLM, Air Canada, Aeroflot, Turkish and Air France, all with a fuel effiency of 33 pax-km/l (see table below). KLM was the top-ranked full service legacy carrier due in part to achieving the highest average passenger load factor (88%) compared to its rivals. Although it had a slightly older fleet at 13 years than the average fleet age for all the ranked airlines that included relatively inefficient Boeing 747-400 and MD-11 aircraft, KLM used more efficient Airbus A330s on a high proportion of operations (43% of ASKs).
British Airways’ surprisingly poor performance can be attributed to heavy use of the 747-400 aircraft (48% of ASKs), its 15-year-old fleet and industry-leading use of premium seating (24%, almost double the industry average). The airline’s commitment to the 747-400, suggests the ICCT analysis report, is due to its lower capital costs and a necessity to manage capacity constraints at London Heathrow. BA also operates all-business class Airbus A318 flights between London City and New York JFK.
Although Lufthansa Group as a whole recorded fuel consumption of 3.84 litres of fuel per 100 kms (or about 26 pax-km/l) in 2014, Lufthansa’s transatlantic operations, with an average efficiency of 28 pax-km/l, was 44% higher than that of Norwegian’s. It flew 23% of ASKs on 747-400 aircraft, had an average overall fleet age of nine years and used extensive premium seating on transatlantic flights. In addition, where it operated the superjumbo A380-800 aircraft on its busiest route between Frankfurt and New York JFK, it managed only an average 78% passenger load factor.
The impact of premium seating on fuel efficiency is substantial, says ICCT. First and business class seats accounted for only 14% of ASKs flown on transatlantic routes in 2014 but were responsible for around one-third of total carbon emissions. For British Airways and another poor performer, Swiss, premium seating was responsible for almost one-half of their total emissions from passenger traffic.
ICCT estimates that around 46% of the variation in transatlantic fuel efficiency last year can be explained by differences in seating configuration, compared to 35% for the underlying fuel burn of the aircraft operated, with passenger load factor and freight carriage making up the remainder.
The findings, it concludes, suggest that some airlines at the bottom of the ranking may be underinvesting in fuel efficiency and spending more on fuel than necessary.
“The combination of older, less efficient aircraft with extensive premium seating makes the economic performance of the least efficient carriers vulnerable to fuel price volatility and any future policies to price aviation carbon,” said ICCT Program Director for aviation and co-author of the study, Dan Rutherford.
“It’s surprising to see such large differences in fuel efficiency on long-haul flights over the Atlantic. The airline you fly, and the aircraft they operate, really matters if you’re concerned about the climate. The report reinforces the need for policies to reduce carbon emissions from international aviation, namely carbon pricing and aircraft efficiency standards.”
Looking ahead, he suggests a future update for transatlantic carriers could also help evaluate relative changes in airline fuel efficiency over time and investigate the impact of new aircraft, for example the Boeing 787-9, on efficiency.
ICCT says it would like to expand the methodology it has used to cover additional routes, for example, transpacific. “Eventually, a global assessment of airline fuel efficiency may be appropriate, although data limitations for flights that occur entirely outside the US would need to be considered,” said Rutherford.