Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Biggest Energy Vice

Admittedly I may have gotten overly-excited when I realized that the price of plane tickets had dropped significantly this spring. Within the last 40 hours I've made a quick round trip to DC, ~1500 miles each way, and have 3 more journeys of similar distance lined up over the next couple of months. We've heard about how big the carbon footprint of air travel is, but I really had no sense of what the order of magnitude is...According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) new aircraft today are 70% more efficient that those 40 years ago and 20% more efficient than 10 years ago. Airlines have a target increase of 25% by 2020. (

According to Margot Gerritsen, faculty member in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford, a Boeing 737 with 75% occupancy gives about 80 miles per gallon for each passenger ( She further states that:
  • aviation accounts for about 1/7 of transportation-related carbon emissions
  • one round-trip from San Fransisco to Paris equates to about 15% of the average annual US household carbon emissions
  • airline growth world-wide is about 5-6% per year (a significant cumulative increase over the coming decades)
  • contrails are of interest because they lead to positive radiative forcing, however they dissipate relatively quickly

Airbus recently sponsored a global competition for new concepts in aircraft design and engineering, and has been narrowing down finalists. A group at Stanford is one of five finalists for an idea of using a "V" formation similar to migrating birds to reduce drag (up to 20% according to calculations). (

I am looking forward to dramatic improvements on this front, because while I love to conserve energy, buy local, bike, etc. I have a really hard time with the idea of reducing my travel!

1 comment:

ncristea said...

Airplane travel is more of a luxury than anything. With that said, it is nice to save time by flying; however, the costs have not gone down significantly. I am use to flying since I was an athlete in my undergrad, which meant that we flew almost everywhere. Back to the point about cost. My family goes to Orlando for most of the time during the Christmas holiday. For example, last year we found plane tickets that were $280 a piece. This year for the same dates we cannot find tickets cheaper than $360 a piece. I find this interesting since the cost of oil has dropped and since the economy is going down, I would have expected the prices go down. Unfortunately, they have not gone down and that has resulted in us driving the 18 hours to Orlando. Now the facts that air travel are more fuel efficient than cars is a valid point, but when people are struggling with deciding if they have enough money to travel, they may instead choose to drive instead of fly. Based on assuming $3.50 for a gallon of gas a drive to Orlando, FL from Houston, TX would cost about $250 for gas alone. That is about 2/3 the price of a single ticket. If you factor in 2 nights for hotels it will probably cost a little less than $500 total for the entire trip and take about 2 days. Now when comparing the pros and cons. If more people are willing to drive instead of fly, then there will be more pollution and the airlines will be struggling because no one will be flying.