Are longer flights more fuel efficient?


Just announced this month, the longest non-stop scheduled flight in the world is now Emirates’ flight from Dubai to Auckland, New Zealand. That’s a total of 7,700 miles (14,200 kilometres) in 17 hours and 15 minutes (that’s for the longest version of the journey, on the way back – apparently it’s more like just under 16 hours on the way there.

That’s comfortably ahead of Qantas’s flight from Sydney, Australia to Dallas, Texas, the longest version of which takes around 16 hours. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a long time in the air, though it may soon be usurped by another Emirates flight from Dubai to Panama which, if approved, is expected to take 17 hours and 35 minutes.

And that’s got to use a lot of fuel, right? With five daily return flights and the Boeing 777-200LRs carrying up to 266 passengers at a time, that’s more than 2,000 people taking the trip in either direction – every day.

So, let’s look a little more closely at the figures. If we allow that on average, a 777-200LR might burn around 4.4 gallons of fuel per mile, this would be around 33,880 gallons (US) per one-way trip. That sounds like a lot (though it can carry up to 47,890 gallons if it needs to) and a very poor mile-to-gallon ratio too. But with up to 266 passengers on board, that actually works out at closer to 127 miles per gallon per person. Compared to what we expect from our cars, which typically deliver around 25 miles per gallon and all too often carry just one person, that’s actually not a bad ratio.

However, longer flights don’t necessarily mean greater fuel efficiency. There may be benefits gained from less ascents and descents, but because the plane needs to carry extra fuel to cover the distance, overall fuel efficiency may be compromised. In the same way that it’s actually more efficient to half fill your car’s fuel tank more often rather than burn more fuel to carry the extra weight of a full tank.

The tipping point usually quoted is around 3,000 nautical miles, after which it’s more economical to stop and refuel. With the Dubai-Auckland run being more than twice that, it may not be the most energy-efficient way to get to New Zealand, but passengers are still likely to love it for the convenience of a shorter trip with less stopovers.

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