At the conference in London, I was brought up short by one of the moderators “I don’t fly across the Atlantic, because I am an Environmentalist.”  This was a bold proclamation, considering we wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t just flown across the Atlantic days before.  The implied rebuke to me and a third of the conference jarred my need to study flight as a transportation mode.

I’ve willfully kept away from flight in the past, as I don’t like studying occasional transportation where daily movements have a much greater effect on us.  The industry involves vehicles using energy and infrastructure to move ludicrous distances, none of it cheaply, so it merits attention.

As a first pass for this article, I looked at the BTS* data for aggregate statistics.  I may never see or get into the specifics, and I’m sure the average obscures the particulars.

The average gas consumed per trip is about 20 gallons.  About two tanks of gas for the average car.  I suspect this is much more efficient than traffic and even transit, but I didn’t do the side by side comparison

The Airlines have improved their “discipline” lately, which means that more flights are taking off full.  They ar making fewer flights more precisely timed to the market demand.  I this improves the efficiency of the trip, and also the profitability of the airline.  More seats equals more revenue.


The airlines are also shuffling the airports they serve, with an increasing focus on major hubs.  Major hubs now account for over 75% of the passenger boardings in the US. I am glad to be an Atlanta native in this case.


I have long heard that the airline industry was barely profitable, and was just as subsidized as the highways.  At least the airlines have a more direct revenue model.



As you can see from the balance, the fortunes of airline fluctuated wildly around 9-11 and the fluctuating price of Jet A.  This says nothing about the individual airlines or the costs of running airports.  I’d like to scare up that data.

I’m inspired by the data here, especially on efficiency.  I’d always assumed airliners were huge and inefficient, but their passenger efficiency is impressive.  This I only getting better with improvements in technology and increased passenger loads.  As much as I hate flying in crowded planes and paying top dollar to fly, I appreciate an industry that resolves not to take off unless the plane is full.

If transit did that in America, they’d run very little service in the midday, and enter a spiral of declining service.  If traffic did that, people would find it intolerable.  Congestion is one of the many unique functions of traffic, after all.

* Bureau of Transportation statistics