If any industry had a stake in reducing its use of petroleum, it would be the airline industry. At 35% of total costs, jet fuel is often an airline’s biggest expense.1 Despite consuming 14% less fuel in 2011 than in 2000, U.S. carriers’ total fuel expenditures grew by 209%. In other words, they spent three times as much to purchase less fuel.2 The global airline industry is also coming under fire for its greenhouse gas emissions. To address rising fuel costs and pollution, the industry must become more efficient and expand its use of cleaner alternatives to petroleum.
Burning large quantities of fuel to propel aircraft is incredibly expensive for airlines and, subsequently, their customers. To minimize these costs, the industry has improved its fuel efficiency by an average of 1-2% each year since the 1950s.3 But these improvements are being outpaced by the rapid growth of both passenger and freight transportation.4 The U.S. is already responsible for 40% of global GHG emissions from aviation,5 and its emissions are expected to jump another 9.7% by 2025.6 Roughly 80% of aviation emissions globally are from flights over 930 miles,7 and the average flight on a U.S. carrier is 1,121 miles.8 In most cases, shifting to more efficient ground or sea transport for such long trips is simply impractical.
America is the undisputed global leader in aviation, giving the country tremendous influence over the industry’s evolution, as well as an opportunity to profit from it. Roughly 75% of the commercial aircraft flying today were manufactured by Boeing.9 And American-owned Pratt & Whitney and GE are two of the largest jet engine manufacturers in the world,10 while GE is also the global leader in engine maintenance operations.11 The aviation sector supports 10 million jobs in the U.S. and has been our top export sector for the past 10 years.12 This influence and market share could be used to spur demand for cleaner technologies—which can and should be manufactured right here at home.
Policy efforts to lower energy use and emissions should be aimed at helping industry improve the efficiency of air transportation and developing low-carbon alternative fuels.