I Had No Idea How Much Fuel Airplanes Burn Until This Week

Illustration for article titled I Had No Idea How Much Fuel Airplanes Actually Burn Until This Week

Photo: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP (Getty Images)

My husband texted me earlier this week as he was about to board a flight from Dallas to San Antonio to tell me one of the pilots had mentioned the plane had taken 5,000 pounds of fuel. Over two tons of fuel for about 50 minutes in the air.

Consciously, I know airplanes use a lot of fuel. They’re big hunks of metal filled with humans and luggage that careen through the air at high speeds; of course they use more than what I’d slap into my car. But my husband’s fun fact was the first time I’d actually heard just how much fuel it takes—and how heavy that fuel is—and it sent me down a rabbit hole looking for information.

The amount of fuel needed per trip varies based on the size of the plane, the number of passengers, cargo weight, jet stream direction, and countless other variables. But in terms of commercial flights, the Smithsonian sums it up best:

Let’s start with a look at the most famous of jets, the Boeing 747. The Boeing website states that this model, with a gas tank capacity of 63,500 gallons, may burn five gallons of jet fuel per mile of flight. A 4,000-mile flight, then, requires 20,000 gallons of fuel. Divided among roughly 400 passengers, that’s 50 gallons of fuel to move each person aboard from, say, Chicago to London. A Honda Civic that gets 30 miles per gallon would need 133 gallons of fuel to make a trip of the same distance. Shared between two passengers (which may be a generous split; the average car carries 1.6 people in America), that would be 66.5 gallons per traveler. And an RV might move just seven miles on a gallon of gasoline. Split between the two people on board, that would be about 285 gallons of fuel each on a 4,000-mile tour. So far, air travel is looking to be more efficient.

The article goes on to note that the 747 gets about five miles per gallon of fuel.

According to Statista, passengers in the United States covered over 762.8 billion miles by plane in 2019, which means:

  • There were about 2.1 billion miles traveled per day
  • If roughly 1.7 million people fly each day, (per: Bureau of Transportation Statistics), that means people are flying an average of 1,229.33 miles per day
  • The average flight would require 245.87 gallons of fuel
  • Because flights usually use 1.5x the amount of fuel required, the average flight would then require 368.799 gallons of fuel
  • If fuel weighs 6.3 pounds (Department of Energy), the average flight would require 2,323 pounds of fuel

I’m not even going to get into the sheer amount of emissions that creates (because a single gallon of gas or jet fuel creates over 20 pounds of carbon dioxide), nor am I going to talk about the absolute reliance on fossil fuels this creates. All I know is that, the next time I fly, I’m not going to be able to think about anything else.

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