How Much Fuel Does an Airplane Use?

Tobias Holm
Tobias Holm

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With climate change concerns headlining the world's agenda, people are focusing on more sustainable ways of living. Combined with the fact that fuel prices continue to increase, many of us are left wondering, "how much fuel does an airplane use?"

A plane such as the Boeing 747 uses an average of one gallon of fuel every second. This means that during a ten-hour flight, one of these planes could burn up to 36,000 gallons of fuel.

Continue reading to discover how much fuel the average flight uses, which part of the flight uses the most, and the factors that affect the overall fuel consumption levels.

How Much Fuel Does Plane Use?

Boeing's website states that the average 747 flight burns around five gallons of fuel for every mile of travel.

This sounds like an excessive amount of fuel, but considering the number of people on board, the stats look a little more favorable. A Boeing 747 can carry over 500 people, all of whom it can transport a distance of one mile using just five gallons of fuel.

In other words, the plane burns around 0.01 gallons of fuel per person for each mile they travel - that's 100 miles per gallon per person. Compare that to the average car, which achieves around 25 miles per gallon per person, and you'll see that air travel can be fuel efficient.

A short-haul flight, such as an Airbus A320 four-hour flight between London and Athens, could burn under ten tonnes of fuel. In contrast, a long-haul flight, such as the Airbus A380 seven-hour flight between London and Dubai, could use almost 80 tonnes. Many factors play into an aircraft's fuel consumption, such as aircraft model, weather conditions, and altitude.

What Part Of The Flight Consumes The Most Fuel?

Cruising uses the most fuel during a flight by a long way.

Look at data compiled by the Official Airline Guide (OAG), and you'll see that in every flight they surveyed, at least 50% of the fuel burn was during cruising. So why do so many people think that takeoff uses the most fuel?

There's a simple explanation. An airplane will use a significant amount of fuel in a short time during takeoff as it needs significant amounts of energy to climb into the air. But during a flight, most of the time is spent cruising. Larger aircraft and longer flights require vast quantities of fuel in general, so when you compare the fuel used in takeoff to the overall fuel used, the takeoff is not quite so substantial.

What is surprising is that taxiing around the runway can burn between 2% and 17% of the overall amount of fuel used during a flight (which is proportionately higher on short flights). The high fuel consumption during taxiing is why many airlines use tugs for plane movement rather than burning through fuel while they're grounded. Most aircraft, however, will be taxiing under their own power at some point during the flight.

Is There A Difference Between The Different Types Of Airlines?

When you choose which airline to fly with, you consider many factors, such as who offers the best frequent flyer program or which company offers the best price. What you don't necessarily compare is the fuel economy of each flight.

Similar to how some models of cars are more efficient than others, so too are some aircraft. If you want to know the fuel economy of an airline, you need to know the miles per gallon (mpg), which represents how far one seat can travel on one gallon of fuel.

Figures published in 2019 by the International Council on Clean Transportation show that Frontier Airlines was the domestic US carrier with the lowest fuel use in 2017 and 2018. New aircraft such as the Airbus A320neo improved the airline's fuel efficiency by almost 4% during these years.

Spirit and Southwest, the second and third-placed carriers, used 7% more fuel on equivalent trips. JetBlue, the last-placed carrier, used 26% more fuel on comparable trips than Frontier in 2018.

ICCT also concludes that 12.5 billion gallons of fuel were used by domestic US airlines in 2018, representing a 17% increase from 2009. Jet fuel emissions per person in the United States are around eight times higher than the average for the world due to the rise in passenger demand and flight miles.

What Affects An Aircraft's Fuel Consumption?

It's not necessarily the airline that is more or less fuel-efficient, but rather the flight itself. Longer flights generally are more fuel efficient than smaller ones, but not always with jumbo jets.

For example, Boeing says their 777-200ER model can achieve 82 miles to the gallon when all seats are packed for a 3,000-mile trip. But increase the distance to 6,000 miles, and the mpg drops to 76.

And large airplanes aren't necessarily more efficient than small planes either. A wide plane requires a large structure to support it, adding a significant amount of additional weight that can reduce the overall gas mileage.

A 2018 assessment by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) compared the fuel efficiency of 20 of the top airlines across the USA, Asia, and Oceania, finding that Qantas, Asiana, and Korean Air have the lowest overall fuel efficiency.

You might think that a larger aircraft carrying more people would be more efficient, but their findings demonstrated that this is not the case. Airlines that operate quad-engined aircraft release more carbon from burning increased amounts of fuel compared to their peers.

Planes with four engines are usually less energy-efficient than twin jets. The reasons for this include the quad aircraft's increased wing weight and smaller engine fan diameter.

Another critical factor that lowers the overall mpg rating of larger aircraft is that they tend to fly with relatively fewer passengers than twinjets. Lower seating density and passenger load factors are to blame for this. This leaves quad jets being 24% less fuel efficient than a twinjet.

Other external elements can affect the fuel consumption of an aircraft too. For example, flying into a headwind will significantly increase the amount of fuel consumption per mile. The jet stream greatly influences a plane's overall fuel usage at high altitudes.

This is the reason why pilots compile a flight plan before taking off. It allows them to choose the optimal route based on weather conditions, jet stream direction, etc., which can affect the speed and altitude of their flight.

Final Thoughts.

Some of the most popular passenger jets in the world can burn up to a gallon of fuel every second. Still, for the number of people on board and the distance the plane travels, it can be more efficient than car travel.

One thing's for sure, as fuel prices rise and climate change presses on, airlines will be keen to own the most fuel-efficient airplanes for commercial travel. Aircraft manufacturers must be at the forefront of technological developments to give us a greener flight.

Commercial Aviation

Tobias Holm

Founder of Planenerd, based in Denmark. Got a LEGO plane as a kid. Obsessed with aviation since. None of my friends want to talk about airplanes.