Stopover Itinerary = 1800 lbs More Fuel: Why Nonstop Flights are Better for the Environment

Why, exactly, are nonstop flights so much better for the environment than 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.

Turns out, though, 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!

PlaneTakeOff

photo by: Global Jet

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.

Here are some calculations:

  • 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 towards takeoff and landing.

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. And 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.

Thus, 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 high school (stats in college doesn’t count). 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.

 

Comments

  1. By Zachary Hicks on

    Just one question. Because people are switching flights wouldnt it actually be better for the environment to have stopovers? In other words, say, 100 people travel from NYC to LA and burn however much fuel it requires, but say that 100 people travel from NYC to Denver, then at Denver 50 new people get on and travel with 50 from the previous flight to LA. The amount of fuel would be divided between more people, therefore, making each persons carbon footprint smaller. I don’t know its just a thought sitting here haven’t done any math or anything but it seems with stopover with people changing flights more people would be using the same amount or slightly more fuel, but in the end, although the gross fuel usage is more, the per capita impact is less.

  2. By on

    @ Zachary – That’s an interesting point. Ideally each plane would be loaded so that 100 people wanting to go from NYC to LA would all be on the same plane flying a nonstop route.
    But, obviously this can’t occur. So, if a direct flight is available (and it’s not always the case) one should still take the direct flight.

  3. By on

    Not only that it’s quicker and you don’t have to sit around! Win! Win!!

    The sad truth though is stop overs are cheaper and most people go with the cheapest flight, especially since prices are so high now.

  4. By on

    @Matt – Very true. I wonder how much more people are willing to pay for a nonstop flight over a stopover flight. Even knowing the environmental cost there is a limit to how much more I would pay for a nonstop flight.

  5. By Wanderus on

    With all these airline problems, I’ve been noticing that I’ve had to fly a lot more stopover flights than nonstop ones. Mostly it seems that there’s just a lot less direct flights.

  6. By Harvey's Wallbangers on

    This article is completely incorrect, because it ignores the extra fuel burned due to the additional weight of fuel that must be carried for a longer nonstop flight. Planes only carry enough fuel to reach their destination, plus a safety margin.

  7. By Prabuddha Delhi India on

    Zach An important question you have left out is the fuel used to carry fuel. To illustrate I will use some fictional numbers but you can plug in the real numbers. Say a plane flying from New York to Delhi carrying 200 passengers carries 40000 gallons of fuel. Now definitely some fuel is being burned just to carry the weight of the fuel. Now if the plane made a stopover in London it would startoff with only 20000 gallons of fuel and use correspondingly less fuel and then refill in London again with 20000 gallons of fuel. So again its a lighter plane and needs less fuel to fly the rest of the way. Basically the difference is the same as a jet fighter landing to refuel or doing an air to air refueling. It needs fuel to get the fuel available up in the air- the only difference being here the plane is acting as its own tanker. Basically on nonstop flights what you have are fuel tankers with a few passengers on board. So I am not sure that nonstop flights save fuel. Yes they do reduce the wear and tear on the plane as well as on your body as landings and takeoffs cause the maximum wear and tear. Secondly on really long flights like Chicago Delhi which are 14 hours you take on an added risk of deep vein thrombosis. So ultimately it comes down to whether you want to avoid the stress of landing and takeoff and save the hours of your time balanced against 50 dollars and a slightly higher risk of DVT; the environmental argument seems not be really conclusive

  8. By on

    @Harvey and @Prabuddha I completely agree with you that a plane will need to carry more fuel for a nonstop flight however that still does not account for the fact that it requires a lot more energy and power to takeoff.

  9. By on

    We always book non-stops, but we did it for other reasons. We both have a mild fear of flying, and take offs and landings are the worst part of the trip. Now that we have a three year old, stop-overs are quite a drag. We go so far as to choose our destinations based on where we can fly non-stop. Fortunately, we live in NYC, so we still have plenty of options! Still, your post makes so much sense, and it gives us one more solid reason to keep booking those non-stop flights. Even if they sometimes are a bit more expensive. Thanks!

  10. By freed on

    Interesting question indeed. Another point is that planes who land have often to wait in queue to arrive at the gate, and the long taxiing way is another drag. Not to mention the extra time needed to travel from one airplane to the other. How many miles does it take you to travel inside the airport? And how much of your precious time is needed? It does not end here, because take-off will be another drag. The waiting area for clearance to go has a revealing term: penalty box. My last flight back from New York was delayed an hour at JFK, and still arrived on scheduled time six hours and 15 minutes later in Amsterdam Schiphol! Do the timetables factor this in? –
    Plus a last point: Unless you only have cabin baggage, you will have to trust that your baggage will make the right transfer, too. There are so many stories of lost baggage, therefore a stopover ups the chance for hassle in that respect, too.
    And to conclude: Is the hub and spokes system (only a few main airports serve smaller ones) in the USA to blame for fewer and fewer direct flights?

  11. By on

    Wow, these numbers really make you think… It makes me wonder why it is cheaper to fly from via Dubai when you are going from Hamburg to Accra (Ghana, West-Africa), compared to flying directly via London to Accra.

  12. By Lovell on

    The article appears to assume the fuel used in climbing and landing is entirely wasted. This assumption is false. In a flight of less than 500 miles, typically the plane is climbing the first half and descending the second half, with essentially no constant altitude cruising at all, so it is only the “wasted” fuel that actually gets you to your destination. What is important is to compare the average fuel consumption per passenger mile traveled. Compared to cruising at altitude, climbing uses more fuel, but this is partially compensated by the descending portion which glides the plane forward on less fuel per mile. It is illustrative to look at the limiting cases. Certainly it is wasteful to break up a flight of less than 500 miles into segments, because there is eesentially no cruising at altitude. However, it saves fuel to break up a flight of more than 6 hours into segments. In these long flights, the weight of the fuel carried approaches the weight of the payload, which means the effective total weight at takeoff is much more a >6 hour flight than for a shorter segment. As for pricing of flights, the relative fuel consumption is certainly not very important at $35/bbl. Flight pricing is by customer value and supply/demand. Non-stops will generally be more expensive due to greater customer convenience and fewer available seats compared to connecting flights.

  13. By Elizabeth on

    @Lovell – Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure what you mean by the “fuel used in climbing is entirely wasted”. I’m not saying that the fuel is wasted, only that it takes more fuel for the ascent and descent than it does for cruising. Could you clarify?

  14. By OL on

    Doesn’t this assume the flight would be canceled (or not) based on that one person buying a ticket for it though?

    Good points about carrying extra fuel for longer flights, though.

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