Sustainable America Blog

Flying or Driving? Which Is More Efficient?

Photo Credit: Captain Kimo via Compfight cc

Today’s “most improved” award goes to the airline industry, which has outpaced gains in fuel efficiency fourfold compared to car travel over the past 40 years.

A new report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute shows that flying has become 74% more efficient per passenger since 1970 while driving gained only 17% efficiency per passenger. In fact, the average plane trip has been more fuel efficient than the average car trip since as far back as 2000, according to their calculations.

To make driving less energy intensive than flying, the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would have to boost its fuel economy from the current 21.5 mpg to at least 33.8 mpg—a 57% increase. Or, the “vehicle load” (the number of persons aboard) would have to increase from the current 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons, according the the report.

Even with vehicle fuel economy at a record high, improvements in aircraft technology, more passengers per flight, and less open seats have given airlines the edge. Even though, as passengers, we flyers may feel more and more like cattle these days, what’s good for the airlines’ bottom lines is better for the environment, it seems.

Our behavior plays a role too—we’re carpooling less than we used to. In 1970, there were 1.9 passengers in an average car trip; by 2010, it had gone down to 1.38 passengers.

Michael Sivak, author of the report and director of Michigan’s sustainable transportation program, pointed out that it will be very difficult for car travel to catch back up to airline travel because the airline industry is going to get even better at efficiency. There is still room for improvement in equipment technology, route management, and procedures, according to a 2013 report about airline fuel efficiency from the International Council on Clean Transportation. And today’s new fuel-efficient vehicles will have a slow impact on the numbers because it takes a while for new technology to work its way into the overall fleet.

How to Beat the Average
It will be interesting to watch how these numbers compare in years to come as both industries continue to strive for greater energy efficiency. In the meantime, here are some steps you can take to max out your personal fuel efficiency:

• When you’re in the market for a new car, consider one that gets better gas mileage than the industry average of 21.5 mpgs.

• Consider taking the train, if it’s an option. Compared to air and auto travel, rail blows them both out of the water. A train trip is 40% more efficient than a flight.

• Don’t forget about old-fashioned carpooling or the newer concept of ride-sharing. Here are some apps you can use to help organize a carpool.

• When you’re deciding whether to fly or drive, keep in mind that shorter flights are significantly more fuel intensive than longer flights on a passenger-mile basis due to the large amount of fuel consumed in landing and takeoff.

Sustainable America aims to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 50% while increasing U.S. food availability by 50% by 2035.

Amy Leibrock
Sustainable America Blog Editor

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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