Airport fuel tank

269 billion litres of jet fuel was burned in 2017 — Enough fuel to fill 5.4 billion VW Golfs

Fuel is one of the biggest operating expenditures for airlines — and you’re probably being undercharged for it (at least in 2017).

We know that the airline industry is a heavy polluter. The fact an A380’s fuel tank has a capacity of 320,000 litres (84,500 US Gal) hints at just how much fuel is required to fly across the world.

Now consider the volume of commercial flights each day. Some estimates suggest this number exceeds 100,000 per day. That’s a lot of jet fuel.

I decided to delve into how much fuel airlines are using (and what it costs them).

Methodology

The US Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes data on fuel consumption and fuel cost reported by US based airlines for both domestic and international operation.

I selected the airlines classed as major (>$20 million revenue / year) that were operational for the whole of 2017 (the last year with full data reported at the time of writing).

Other statistics in this post were pulled from Wikipedia. Citations here.

Results

Fuel consumption of major US airlines 2017

Fuel consumption and fuel cost of major US airlines 2017

Download chart.

In total the 17 major US airlines consumed 64,853,949,435 (64.9 billion) litres of fuel in 2017. 42.7 billion litres was used for domestic routes and 22.2 billion litres on international routes.

This amount is enough to fill 1.3 billion VW Golf’s with a 50 litre fuel tank (of course, you would not want to use jet fuel)!

Unfortunately I do not have the exact figures for how many flying kilometres this amount of fuel represents. But I can estimate…

According to this Wikipedia article, jet fuel weighs 0.81 kg/l. This equates to US airlines using 52.5 billion kilograms of fuel in 2017.

Turing to Wikipedia again, a Boeing 787-9 burns 5.77 kg of fuel per km. Using this as the average figure for fuel efficiency across all US major airlines would mean that 9.1 billion kilometres was flown in 2017.

Check my calculations here.

Cost of fuel for major US airlines 2017

Rank cost Rank consumption Airline Consumption (litres) Cost (dollars)
2 1 American Airlines 13,505,990,837 $5,753,704,000
1 2 Delta Air Lines 12,927,667,253 $5,936,840,000
3 3 United Airlines 12,627,196,549 $5,452,584,000
4 4 Southwest Airlines 7,739,452,445 $3,747,046,000
5 5 Federal Express 4,319,701,694 $1,866,463,000
7 6 UPS 3,134,338,407 $1,341,345,000
6 7 JetBlue Airways 2,997,628,325 $1,362,642,000
8 8 Alaska Airlines 1,884,891,914 $902,694,000
9 9 Spirit Air Lines 1,305,531,128 $615,581,000
10 10 Hawaiian Airlines 983,120,187 $421,989,000
11 11 Frontier Airlines 915,573,331 $385,901,000
12 12 Virgin America 778,049,386 $334,432,000
14 13 Polar Air Cargo Airways 749,855,652 $322,778,000
13 14 Allegiant Air 676,543,617 $327,022,000
15 15 SkyWest Airlines 303,813,221 $161,036,000
17 16 Airborne Express 2,316,671 $1,095,000
16 17 ExpressJet Airlines 2,278,817 $1,532,000

Full table.

These airlines paid $28,934,684,000 USD ($28.9 billion) for fuel in 2017.

You will notice American Airlines used more fuel than Delta (13.5 vs. 12.9 billion litres), but paid less for it ($5.75 vs $5.94 billion USD) in 2017. This is because airlines strategy for buying and holding fuel differs. In fact, very large teams working for airlines are solely dedicated to the task of buying fuel, for good reason.

Cost paid per litre of jet fuel by US major airlines 2017

Download chart.

There is a fairly large range in price paid per litre of jet fuel between these airlines. Frontier Airlines fuel team are doing the best job paying around $0.42 per litre in 2017. ExpressJet paid $0.67 per litre! This largely the result of economies of scale. Frontier bought 915,573,331 litres of fuel in 2017, whereas ExpressJet bought only 2,278,817 litres.

Worldwide jet fuel consumption

According to this Forbes article, there were 4 billion air travellers in 2017. The US Bureau of Transport and Statistics reports 965 million of these, or 24%, were from the US.

If 64,853,949,435 litres represents roughly 24% of all worldwide jet fuel consumption (US consumption), in 2017 airlines consumed 268,824,660,869 (269 billion) litres of jet fuel worth an estimated $120,561,183,333.

Taking the 2017 world population (7.5 billion), that means 35.8 litres of jet fuel was burned per person in 2017! And this is an underestimation (see improvements).

Improvements

The final calculations for world fuel consumption in 2017 need to be improved. I only considered fuel consumption for major US airlines, and omitted smaller airlines operating in the US and non-commercial traffic.

This means that fuel consumption in the US will be higher than the figure I used (64.8 billion litres), and thus so will the figure for fuel consumption for worldwide airlines.

tl;dr

An estimated 269 billion litres of jet fuel was burned by the largest commercial airlines in 2017 — 35.8 litres for each person on the planet.

Footnotes

  1. Data sources + data used in this post.
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