MIT Researchers Tell Airlines to Lighten Up

July 7th, 2014

Image: MarcusObal/Wikimedia Commons

Image: MarcusObal/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers at MIT have crunched the numbers and found that airlines can save big by making small weight changes on flights.

To passengers, restrictions on carry-ons, refreshments, and in-flight entertainment are annoyances. To the airlines, though, since heavier planes require extra fuel, such little luxuries come at a very high price. Luke Jensen SM ’14 and Brian Yutko SM ’11, PhD ’14 decided to find out just how high.

Using an aircraft performance model developed by Mark Drela ’83, SM ’83, PhD ’85, the Terry J. Kohler Professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the duo analyzed a typical Boeing 737-700 flight from Boston to Denver. They estimate that taking weight reduction to an extreme (that is, operating with no passengers or bags) could result in fuel savings of no more than $1,300. Realistic savings per flight, of course, are less impressive still—until you expand the equation to include the millions of flights that take place throughout the year.

Among Jensen and Yutko’s findings: Airlines spend an estimated $1.2 million each year on fuel to accommodate passengers carrying cellphones. They spend another $5.7 million transporting magazines. And a plane full of passengers with laptops costs a whopping $21.6 million.

Jensen and Yutko point out that American Airlines is taking steps to reduce weight in the cockpit by outfitting pilots with “electronic flight bags,” replacing paper maps and charts with tablet computers. According to American (and Jensen and Yutko), this switch can save $1.2 million per year on fuel costs.

Take a look at the full report at fivethirtyeight.com.

More about MIT’s Airline Data Project.

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