Why Nonstop Flights are Better for the Environment: Save Fuel

When I’m checking for prices of flights and seeing what days work best for my schedule, I am always trying to find the cheapest nonstop flight that I can. Time is of the essence, and as I am often traveling with my children, it is worth the extra money to book a flight that is nonstop, instead of having layovers. I am also one to not check bags. It is difficult to drag bags on and off planes, also with kids, to try to catch the next, connecting flight. I booked these flights thinking why nonstop flights are better…  for the convenience, our comfort, and my sanity. But then I started thinking about why nonstop flights are better, not just for myself, but for the environment too.

How is a direct flight different than a non-stop flight?

Most people believe if they do not have to change planes, they are on a direct, non-stop flight. This is not true as they do not have the same meaning. When you are online searching to make a flight reservation, it is most always better for the environment to take a non-stop flight. This means it goes from one airport to another, without stopping. A direct flight has several destinations, whether or not the final destinations affect all of the passengers, it makes stops from the original airport before arriving to its final destination. While some passengers may deplane at the first destination, other passengers may remain seated on the plane as new passengers board. So while they seem to be interchangeable terms, they are not.

Why nonstop flights are better

Aside from the time and convenience, I never really stopped to think why nonstop flights are better for the environment than direct flights with a stopover. It seems like the latter would burn only slightly more fuel (and thus emit slightly more carbon), since it requires just a few more miles of travel. It turns out, however, that nonstop flights are exponentially better for the environment.

It’s not just because you’re traveling fewer miles. It’s because as much as 50% of carbon emissions come from takeoff and landing!

why nonstop flights are betterphoto by: Global Jet

I really wanted to know exactly how and why nonstop flights are better. Surprisingly, it took a lot a research to figure this out. I thought a simple Google search would turn up the answers. Instead, I spent hours digging through websites, running calculations and conversions, and even browsed through flight school manuals to learn why stopover flights are worse for the environment. Because it’s so hard to find this info, I encourage you to take notes and spread the word. Knowing that all flights are not created equal will help you to make informed choices.

Some calculations of airplanes’ fuel usage
  • During a 143 mile direct flight (roughly Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, PA), 51% of fuel burned is from the taxi, takeoff, climb, and landing.
  • During a 863 mile direct flight (roughly Washington, D.C. to St. Louis, MO), 16.6% of fuel burned is from the taxi, takeoff, climb, and landing.
  • During a 1,151 mile nonstop flight (roughly Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis, MN), a plane burns about 13,896 lbs of fuel (1,819 of which come from take-off and landing). Thus, 13% of fuel is burned from taxi, takeoff, climbing, and decent.

But, if you stopped in Chicago for a layover on your way to Minneapolis, your planes (jointly) will burn at least 15,715 pounds of fuel (3,638 from takeoff and landing). So a whopping 23% of the fuel your planes use goes toward takeoff and landing.

Always remember that a direct flight is different from than a flight that is non-stop. In other words, because you took a flight with a layover, your itinerary burns at least 1,820 more pounds of fuel than a nonstop flight. Additionally, because you likely sat on the extensive runway traffic that is Chicago O’Hare Airport, your plane probably burned through even more fuel.

Since 1,820 pounds of jet fuel probably doesn’t mean much to you, I’ll translate. Jet fuel weighs approximately 6.7 lbs/gallon.

Therefore, 272 extra gallons of fuel are burned during this stopover itinerary than during a non-stop flight.

That’s the equivalent of filling up my Honda Accord 20 times!

Next time you fly, ask yourself: “Is saving $50 by flying with a layover really worth the environmental cost?” For me, it’s not.

Author’s note: I’m not a mathematician. I haven’t taken a real math course since my MBA over 20 years ago. There were a lot of calculations and conversions and searches that went into these numbers. I doubled checked my work, but please feel free to run the numbers for yourself. Also, note that the type and size of plane changes these calculations as does the distance flown. Calculations are based on Climate Care.org’s Aviation Emissions and Offsets.

Knowing why nonstop flights are better will hopefully encourage you to consider them the next time you schedule plane reservations.