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The Hidden Costs of Flying

Scientists calculate the surprising fuel costs of catering, carry-ons, computers, and even a full bladder.

While airlines may set the fares and fees for air travel, the decisions made by passengers also come with costs. Every item on board makes a plane heavier, which burns more fuel. An airliner’s cost of operating rises with every laptop (33 cents per flight), pillow (6 cents), or magazine (5 cents) you bring along.

Want your flight to burn less fuel? Start by emptying your bladder before boarding. MIT aeronautical engineers Luke Jensen and Brian Yutko used a set of typical U.S. and European flight conditions to analyze how specific items add up on three major carriers (United, American, and Ryanair) over a normal day. Uncertainties abound, such as the price of fuel or the cost of an unexpected detour.

WHAT IT COSTS

Your ticket accounts for you—and the items you

carry. During one year on a Boeing 737-800 operated

by United, even small things add up to big costs.

Suitcase

Carry-on

$1,545

$464

50 lbs

15 lbs

Neck pillow

Video console

$20

$216

0.65 lbs

7.0 lbs

Laptop

Cell phone

$138

$12

4.46 lbs

0.38 lbs

Meal tray

Tablet

$31

$20

1.0 lbs

0.9 lbs

Full bladder

12-oz. drink

$14

$26

0.44 lbs

0.86 lbs

Magazine

Peanut packet

$22

$1

0.7 lbs

0.03 lbs

Added fuel cost for one item on one plane over one year

WHERE PLANES GO

To make an aircraft cost-effective, airlines need to

constantly move people or things. In one day a typical

Boeing 737 flies about 4,300 miles.

UNITED STATES

Fuel weight

(lbs)

Fuel volume

(gallons)

1. EWR Newark, NJ

to 2. IAH Houston, TX............................

19,000

2,800

to 3. PDX Portland, OR.........................

23,000

3,400

to 4. SFO San Francisco, CA............

10,000

1,400

to 5. RDU Raleigh-Durham, NC.......

29,000

4,400

12,000 Total

HOW FAR WE’VE COME

 

Compared to 40 years ago, today’s single-aisle jets

can carry the same size load the same distance on

roughly half the fuel. Lighter hulls, more fuel-efficient

engines, and improved aerodynamics allow airlines to

maximize the number­ of passengers.

1970

43.0 passenger miles per gallon

727-200

158,000 lbs total weight

104,775 lbs structural

23,225 lbs fuel

30,000 lbs payload

2014

76.2 passenger miles per gallon

737-800

134,500 lbs

91,325 lbs

13,175 lbs

30,000 lbs

Cost calculations were made using Boeing 737-800 aircraft carrying 75 percent of payload capacity. Passenger miles per gallon is derived from a plane’s average miles per gallon multiplied by the typical number of passengers.

WHAT IT COSTS

Your ticket accounts for you—and the items you carry. During one year on a

Boeing 737-800 operated by United, even small things add up to big costs.

Reveal item

weight

and its added fuel

cost

on one plane over one year.

WHERE PLANES GO

To make an aircraft cost-effective, airlines need to constantly move people or things. In one day a typical Boeing 737 flies about 4,300 miles.

UNITED STATES

Fuel weight

(lbs)

Fuel volume

(gallons)

1. EWR Newark, NJ

to 2. IAH Houston, TX..............................

19,000

2,800

to 3. PDX Portland, OR..........................

23,000

3,400

to 4. SFO San Francisco, CA..............

10,000

1,400

to 5. RDU Raleigh-Durham, NC........

29,000

4,400

12,000 Total

1970

43.0 passenger miles per gallon

HOW FAR WE’VE COME

 

727-200

Compared to 40 years ago, today’s single-aisle jets can carry the same size load the same distance on roughly half the fuel. Lighter hulls, more fuel-efficient engines, and improved aerodynamics allow airlines to maximize the number­ of passengers.

158,000 lbs total weight

104,775 lbs structural

23,225 lbs fuel

30,000 lbs payload

2014

76.2 passenger miles per gallon

737-800

134,500 lbs

91,325 lbs

13,175 lbs

30,000 lbs

Cost calculations were made using Boeing 737-800 aircraft carrying 75 percent of payload capacity.

Passenger miles per gallon is derived from a plane’s average miles per gallon multiplied by the typical number of passengers.

WHAT IT COSTS

Your ticket accounts for you— and the items you carry. During one year on a

Boeing 737-800 operated by United, even small things add up to big costs.

Reveal item

weight

and its added fuel

cost

on one plane over one year.

WHERE PLANES GO

To make an aircraft cost-effective, airlines need

to constantly move people or things. In one day a

typical Boeing 737 flies about 4,300 miles.

UNITED STATES

Fuel weight

(lbs)

Fuel volume

(gallons)

1. EWR Newark, NJ

to 2. IAH Houston, TX....................................

19,000

2,800

to 3. PDX Portland, OR.................................

23,000

3,400

1,400

10,000

to 4. SFO San Francisco, CA....................

to 5. RDU Raleigh-Durham, NC...............

4,400

29,000

12,000 Total

1970

43.0 passenger miles per gallon

HOW FAR WE’VE COME

727-200

Compared to 40 years ago, today’s single-aisle jets can carry the same size load the same distance on roughly half the fuel. Lighter hulls, more fuel-efficient engines, and improved aerodynamics allow airlines to maximize the number­ of passengers.

158,000 lbs total weight

104,775 lbs structural

23,225 lbs fuel

30,000 lbs payload

2014

76.2 passenger miles per gallon

737-800

134,500 lbs

91,325 lbs

13,175 lbs

30,000 lbs

Cost calculations were made using Boeing 737-800 aircraft carrying 75 percent of payload capacity.

Passenger miles per gallon is derived from a plane’s average miles per gallon multiplied by the typical number of passengers.

Magazine

$22

0.7 lbs

Suitcase

$1545

50 lbs

Meal Tray

$31

1.0 lbs

Video Console

$216

7.0 lbs

Carry‑on

$464

15 lbs

Item

Cost

Weight

Cell phone

$12

0.38 lbs

Peanut packet

$1

0.03 lbs

Full Bladder

$14

0.44 lbs

Tablet

$20

0.9 lbs

Laptop

$138

4.46 lbs

12‑oz drink

$26

0.86 lbs

Neck Pillow

$20

0.65 lbs

And even if passengers help reduce weight, airlines don’t always share savings with ticket buyers. But the surest way to minimize the cost of flying a plane, says Jensen, is to limit the number of things—like bags—that people can bring aboard without an extra fee.

Check out the other ways flight is being reshaped for greater fuel efficiency, through new designs, operational changes, and even airport architecture.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.