Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:50 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:50 | SYDNEY

The surprising inefficiency of air transport


Sam Roggeveen


6 June 2008 15:08

The Economist's Free Exchange blog carries a post on rising global transport costs. It ends with this:

The extent to which the product content of trade and trade volumes shift is dependent on how high transportation costs go, and how well technologies can make up the slack. It could be the case, however, that at least some of the rapid globalisation of the past few decades was based upon an unsustainable dependence on cheap transportation. 

My immediate reaction was to think that higher oil prices should not radically undermine this dependence on cheap transportation, because it is technology that has made transport so cheap, not low oil prices. And since that technology is still improving, it should offset the rising price of oil. In fact, rising fuel prices should encourage more innovation in fuel-efficient transportation.  

Modern commercial aviation is a bit of a poster-child for this kind of argument, so I went in search of facts to back up my intuition that commercial aircraft have become radically more efficient over the years (it's the blogger's way: draw conclusions first, then find evidence). What I found instead was this 2005 report from the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory, which claims modern jet aircraft are no more efficient than the last piston-powered commercial airliners of the early 1950s. The move to jets was made largely to improve speed and performance, and it radically decreased efficiency. We're only now catching up to the per-seat efficiency standards we had when we made the switch to jets.

Given modern just-in-time logistics, and that most of us hate flying, the demand for speed in commercial aviation is unlikely to slacken. So the next time you see an airline commercial announcing a new 'green' aircraft fleet, remember that it's all relative. Airlines have to weigh the need for efficiency against our demand to get there now.