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.

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.

Read This Next

Watching the sea change from a tiny German island
COVID-19 may impair men’s sexual performance

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet