Hainan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA) ranked first in overall fuel efficiency among transpacific carriers in a new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Qantas Airways was named as the least fuel-efficient carrier.
The study analysed 20 airlines operating non-stop flights between the mainland United States and East Asia and Oceania. The difference in efficiency performance between two co-leaders and the least fuel-efficient carrier, Qantas Airways, was 64% — the widest gap identified in ICCT studies to date.
How carriers are achieving fuel efficiency
Hainan and ANA used different strategies to achieve similar operating performance, the study found. Hainan, it said, operates a very efficient fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. ANA, in contrast, relied on robust freight operations; it carries about three times as much “belly” freight per passenger as Hainan.
At the other end of the spectrum, the study attributes Qantas’ inefficiency to that fact that it operated aircraft with higher fuel burn at very low passenger and freight load factors. Overall, freight share of total payload was the most important driver of transpacific fuel efficiency in 2016, accounting for nearly half of the variance across carriers.
“This research shows that there are a variety of ways that international airlines can reduce fuel use and carbon emissions,” said ICCT’s Brandon Graver, lead author of the study. “Buying new aircraft, carrying large numbers of passengers, and optimising freight strategies all make a difference.”
Alan Milne, head of fuel and environment at Qantas told the Guardian that the airline ranks low in the analysis because it uses large aircraft, flies long distances and has premium cabins that leave more space between passengers.
In October last year, Qantas announced that its LA-based aircraft will be powered by biofuel from 2020, reducing the airline’s carbon emissions on services operating between the US and Australia.
A general trend the study found is the fuel burn per passenger kilometre increases along with aircraft size and weight – and that very large, four-engine aircraft typically have higher fuel burn per passenger than aircraft with two engines. The researchers say that airlines that predominantly use the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 – Asiana, Korean Air, and Qantas – had the lowest overall fuel efficiency on transpacific operations. In addition, the seating densities and passenger load factors on these aircraft were typically less than the industry average.
“There’s a reason airlines around the world are starting to avoid very large aircraft like the 747 and A380,” said Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s aviation program director and co-author of the paper.
He added: “Newer twin-engine widebodies provide the payload and range capabilities needed for transpacific flights with much lower fuel burn.”
A spokesperson for Airbus told FINN: “We believe the report is misleading because it mixes freight share and compares different seating layouts, comfort standards and operating ranges without using the latest aircraft performance data gained from real life operations.”
Aviation’s big clean-up
Aviation is a major contributor to climate pollution, accounting for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) forecasts airline traffic in Asia/Pacific will account for 31% of CO2 from international aviation in 2020, with North America at 15%.
The ICCT report concludes that in order to achieve ICAO’s long-term goal of increasing the fuel efficiency of international flights by 2% annually, more fuel-efficient wide-body aircraft will need to be introduced to keep up with demand.
FINN editor-in-chief, Alan Peaford, said recently: “The environmental challenge to aviation is nothing new. The industry has in the past been dismissive and defensive but is now moving towards constructive. Technology and innovation are finally delivering the green shoots of sustainability.”
Ongoing work includes exploring alternative fuels, cleaner engines and electric aircraft. Is it enough?