Survey reveals disparity in transatlantic fuel efficiency
Norwegian Air Shuttle was the most fuel-efficient airline on North Atlantic routes in 2017, according to a new study. The LCC turned a 63% better fuel-burn figure than the worst operator, British Airways (BA).
The survey, which measured the 20 airlines with the greatest capacity operating nonstop flights between the US and various points in Europe in 2017, was published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent nonprofit organization founded to provide unbiased research and technical and scientific analysis to environmental regulators.
The survey reported that Norwegian Air Shuttle had an average fuel efficiency of 44 passenger-kilometers per liter of fuel (pax-km/L), 33% higher than the industry average of 34 pax-km/L). The second and third most efficient were, respectively, Iceland’s WOW Air and Lufthansa Group subsidiary Swiss International Air Lines.
The estimated gap between the most and least fuel-efficient transatlantic airlines widened from 51% in 2014 to 63% last year. Norwegian’s average fuel efficiency increased by 3 pax-km/L, while BA’s decreased by 1 pax-km/L.
Although the fuel efficiency of BA’s fleet increased, and average passenger load factors were similar in 2014 and 2017, the freight share of total payload and average seating density of BA’s fleet fell during this time.
The industry average fuel efficiency improved only marginally from 33 pax-km/L in 2014 to 34 pax-km/L in 2017. This improvement could be attributed to an increase in fuel-efficient aircraft.
Major improvers in the ranking from 2014 to 2017 include UK-based Virgin Atlantic (30 to 35 pax-km/L) and Russia’s Aeroflot Airlines (30 to 33 pax-km/L). These improvements are linked to the increased use of more fuel-efficient aircraft—the Boeing 787-9 for Virgin and Boeing 777-300ER for Aeroflot. However, if Virgin Atlantic proceeds with plans to buy new supersonic aircraft, which ICCT said are expected to have fuel efficiencies around 7 pax-km/L, that could reverse its efficiency gains.
The importance of seating density as a driver of fuel efficiency has increased since 2014 because of the expansion of carriers like LCC Norwegian and WOW Air, which operate transatlantic flights with higher seat counts and a lower percentage of premium seats compared to competitors.
One significant factor in BA’s poor figure, ICCT said, was that the increasingly elderly Boeing 747-400 remains the “most prevalent aircraft” in the company’s transatlantic fleet. The only other carrier in the top 20 to operate the aging Boeing model was KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The most common aircraft now operating US-European sectors is the Airbus A330-300.
“BA flew more than half of its departures on inefficient Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A380aircraft, leading to an average aircraft fuel burn 8% higher than the industry average,” ICCT said. “These aircraft also have a lower seating density compared to the rest of the industry.
The airline plans to retire the 747-400 from its fleet by 2024. The ICCT noted that International Airlines Group CEO Willie Walsh has stated that he is interested in obtaining additional A380s. “Although larger airplanes with more premium seating may conjure up feelings of luxury travel, they do not help the airline’s environmental performance,” the ICTT said.
It noted, however, that BA does operate more fuel-efficient Boeing 787s on transatlantic routes, with average fuel efficiencies at or above the industry average.
“The most important thing that an airline can do for the environment is to invest in newer aircraft which use the latest technology to be as fuel-efficient as possible,” Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos said.
“This recognition from ICCT is truly the highest form of industry praise and is validation that we’re moving in the right direction with more environmentally friendly planes.”
In a statement, BA said it was “committed to reducing our carbon emissions. We are investing heavily in modern, fuel-efficient aircraft, including the 787, A380 and A350. We are well on course to deliver a 25% improvement in carbon emissions reduction by 2025.
“As British Airways has a greater share of the premium market on the North Atlantic it has more premium seats on its aircraft which is the main reason its fuel efficiency per passenger appears lower.”