Aircraft: Why are we weighting?

Flying is a weighty issue. The lighter the aircraft, the better it flies and – more importantly for airlines – the less fuel it needs to stay in the air, and the less we have to pay for tickets.

Nice Airport T2

The arrival of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Nice (a Norwegian flight from Oslo – see Seattle's Dream Flies into Nice... via Oslo) heralds a new age in eco-aviation for these lighter aircraft that promise fuel savings of up to 20%. The A350 is Airbus's first contribution to the growing market for less heavy airframes with redesigned profiles, wingtip refinements and the use of carbon fibre, which is lighter and stronger, than metal equivalents.

Aircraft design is only part of the strategy in the battle against fuel costs. Before long we can expect to see "tugs" operating at airports as carriers cut down on engine time when on the ground; especially on short-haul flights (as most are from Nice) taxiing can consume as much as one-fifth of fuel load. An Airbus A319 uses 640 gallons (2500L) an hour, so a 20-minute taxi on the ground can cost the equivalent of three or four Nice-London fares.

Even cleaning the aircraft saves fuel. The cleaner the paintwork, the less friction is created and the less fuel a plane uses. Southwest Airlines has calculated that it saves $1.6 million in fuel every 4 months by cleaning dirt and grit from engines and fuselages.

Fuel is an airline's biggest single expense: only eight years ago it accounted for 15% of an average airline's running costs but today it has surged to over 40%. A Boeing 737 can fill up with 7000 gallons (26,500L) of fuel while the 747 needs 60,000 gallons (227,000L) to fill its tanks. The annual cost of commercial aircraft fuel worldwide is over $200 billion. Nice airport can currently stock 1440m3 of fuel (370,000 gallons) but is expanding this to 5400 m3 as demand increases. The current stock is only just enough to cover long-weekend needs when fuel trucks cannot use French autoroutes for top-up delivery.

The fuel battle really lies with the issue of weight, and both passengers and crew are frontline foot soldiers. Replacing heavy flight manuals with much lighter iPads has saved American Airlines over $1 million a year on fuel for their Boeing 777 fleet alone. Qantas currently prints 18,000 pages of crew information every day but has bought 2000 iPads and commissioned their own app so that by September their 737 fleet will be fully equipped, saving 20kg of weighty paper on each flight. Most airlines have cut back on the amount of water they carry and have modified toilet-flushing mechanisms as well. Reducing the weight by only 25kg a flight can reduce the operating cost of a heavily-used medium-haul aircraft by as much as €500,000 a year.

For the passenger, fuel loading has become a very disturbing aspect to the weight dilemma. It costs fuel to carry fuel so budget airlines especially want their pilots to carry the smallest fuel loads possible within the authorised limits. The subject was spotlighted last year when some Ryanair flights needed priority landing in Spain because they were running low on fuel. As a retired pilot from another airline told the Reporter, "Aircraft engines aren't designed to run just on the fumes left in empty tanks." The Ryanair flights were within the legally established guidelines and the Irish carrier has not been sanctioned.

More severe baggage restrictions now imposed by carriers such as easyJet are also part of the battle of the bulge. The industry has been toying with the idea of charging passengers by their body weight so that lighter passengers would pay less, making cheaper travel another reason for some of us to go on a diet. Even the weight of the crew comes into play as some airlines offer keep-fit incentives to employees. Carriers like India's GoAir only hire female crew because they cost less fuel to carry.

So, there's a cost-related reason for those pesky weight and baggage restrictions. We can expect this particular battle to continue as we all demand ever-cheaper ticket prices.

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