The next time you fly onboard a long-haul international flight across an ocean, your thoughts might shift to the guzzling engines next to you. Thousands of liters burned to fly yourself and tons of cargo around the world for a comparatively low ticket price. How much fuel does a plane need? And what does it cost?
How much fuel do aircraft need?
Every plane is different, and therefore requires a different amount of fuel to fly. Apart from the size and efficiency of the plane itself, other factors affecting fuel use include sector length, taxi time, cargo weight, weather, jet stream direction, and more. To further complicate matters, aircraft don’t fill up their tanks to maximum unless they fly near their max range. After all, a plane also needs to burn fuel to transport the remaining fuel in its tanks, so the less surplus, the better.
Some airlines choose to fill up enough fuel to make 1.5 trips and simply refuel the plane on its return journey. However, refueling a plane is complex and can delay the aircraft’s departure, especially a full tank top-up (such as a widebody aircraft). Others will have enough in the tanks to make the return trip and then some. This is particularly common on shorter flights where fuel is cheaper at the home airport than it is at the destination.
How much does fuel cost?
Naturally, aviation fuel is somewhat different to what you use in a car (although it’s remarkably close to diesel and has been used before to drive a pickup truck). This means that prices vary less than at a gas station, and there is less competition at the pump.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of how much fuel costs per aircraft per flight. Here are some example destinations put together by The Points Guy of how much airlines spent on fuel on average in 2019:
- New York JFK Airport to London Heathrow – $27,270
- Return to JFK from London Heathrow – $33,411
- New York JFK to LAX – $10,757
- LAX to Tokyo Narita – $19,190
- Chicago to Mami – $4,747
- Miami to Chicago – $7,201
The return journey north to Chicago costs more fuel (almost 1,000 gallons more), believed to be due to the congestion of landing at a major airport. A good estimation is that a narrowbody aircraft like the Boeing 737 operates at around $1,500 per hour.
Now that we know the aircraft’s price, we can start to number crunch how airlines calculate the cost of a ticket.
Let’s take the previous example of the Boeing 737. First, the airline needs to hire a plane from a leasing agent (or buy it outright); we will assume a cost of $242,000 per month – or per hour, $331 – to sit as a giant paperweight.
For Los Angeles LAX to San Fransisco SFO, this is an average flight time of one hour and 25 minutes. Costing us $2,000 in fuel (rounding) and $481 in lease payments (ignoring costs to board and refuel on each end). A Boeing 737-800 can carry 154 passengers, which at an average price of $100 per ticket (again rounding), is $15,400.
This very rough estimation doesn’t include the myriad of other expenses from maintenance, pilots, food, and cabin crew, nor the extra payments of seat selection, baggage fees, or business class. But as you can see, it only cost $2,000 in fuel and $500 in aircraft rental feels, and the airline made $15,400 – assuming a full plane.