Gap between the most and least fuel efficient transatlantic airlines has increased over past three years, finds ICCT study
Norwegian Air Boeing 787
Mon 17 Sept 2018 – Transatlantic airline fuel efficiency between 2014 and 2017 improved by an average 1 per cent per year as a result of the use of new aircraft with lower fuel burn but is less than the industry goal, finds a new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The study analysed 20 airlines operating non-stop flights between the United States and Europe and found the carbon intensity gap between the most and least efficient carriers increased from 51% in 2014, when ICCT published its first study, to 63% in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the new low-cost entrants into the transatlantic market, Norwegian Air and WOW performed better than the bigger mainline carriers with their business models of lower seating densities and higher percentage of premium seats. However, the underlying fuel burn of an airline’s fleet was found to be the most important driver overall, accounting for around 40 per cent of the variation in fuel efficiency across carriers.
ICCT found the biggest changes in the transatlantic market since its 2014 study were the increase in operations from European low-cost carriers and the further utilisation of newer aircraft.
The industry average fuel efficiency improved from 33 passenger kilometres per litre of fuel (pax-km/L) in 2014 to 34 pax-km/L in 2017 after an adjustment for a common modelling methodology. Norwegian’s combination of higher seat counts and use of very efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners, and WOW’s densely-packed Airbus A321-200 narrowbody aircraft helped top ICCT’s fuel efficiency rankings.
A general trend observed by the authors of the study is that the fuel burn per passenger kilometre increases on transatlantic routes as the aircraft size and weight increases, leading to airlines that predominantly use very large four-engined aircraft – such as Lufthansa and British Airways – having the lowest rankings. Major improvers in the ranking from 2014 to 2017 include Virgin Atlantic (30 to 35 pax-km/L) and Aeroflot (30 to 33 pax-km/L) as a result of moving from four-engined aircraft to the more fuel-efficient twin-engined Boeing 787-9 and Boeing 777-300ER respectively.
“Although larger airplanes with more premium seating may conjure up feelings of luxury travel, they do not help the airline’s environmental performance,” say the authors. “BA does operate fuel-efficient Boeing 787 aircraft on transatlantic routes, with average fuel efficiencies at or above the industry average.”
ICCT says the introduction of the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 can contribute to meeting ICAO’s long-term aspirational goal of increasing the fuel efficiency of international flights by 2% annually. The demand for these new aircraft types, as well as models under development like the A330neo and 777X, will increase in line with a rise in demand for air travel and come to dominate the global airline widebody fleet, it predicts.
All other things being equal, airlines operating aircraft with lower fuel burn tend to be more efficient, but operational parameters such as payload carried are also important and should be tracked, adds the study.
In order of decreasing importance, the key drivers to transatlantic airline fuel efficiency in 2017 were aircraft fuel burn, seating density, freight share of total payload and passenger load factor.
The authors point out that while ICAO has adopted the 2% annual fuel efficiency goal and developed a fuel efficiency standard for new aircraft, it has not yet adopted mandatory policies to boost efficiency in the existing fleet. CO2 reductions through ICAO’s CORSIA scheme are likely to be met from carbon offsetting, not improved aircraft efficiency or alternative fuels, they argue, and fuel prices alone are an inconsistent driver of fuel efficiency.
“New policies to accelerate investments in more fuel-efficient aircraft and operations are critical if industry is to meet its long-term climate goals,” said Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s Aviation Program Director and co-author with Brandon Graver of the study.