Cost of jet fuel leaps upwards

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A business aquaintance of mine flew from Boston to London on British Airways' standby fare of $185 the other week. He plans to fly that way regularly. At the price, "why not," he says with enthusiasm.

What he wasn't aware of was that long before the Boeing 747 had reached cruising altitude, before even the fasten-seat belt signs had been turned off, his total fare had been consumed in the cost of running the giant plane. Statisticians with the airline say a standby fare contributes the cost of just 2 minutes of flying time across the Atlantic.

Where seven years ago fuel costs on a transatlantic flight amounted to an average $41 per passenger, it now totals $170. Jet fuel, which has pole-vaulted upward on a regular basis ever since the Arab oil embargo, jumped another 50 percent this past year. Art Jackson of American Airlines likes to point up the fule problems of the industry this way: "In 1978 it cost $18,400 to fil a Boeing 747. By July this year it cost $41,500."

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At the same time airlines fares, after allowing for inflation, are at all time lows on may routes. So, it has reached the point where the profit or loss on a flight frequently hinges on whether the airplane can fly directly into the distination or not. Stacked planes, waiting for permission to land at busy airports, wreak havoc with fuel bills. A 747, for instance, burns 3,500 gallons an hor so a 20-minute stacking operation over, say, Chicago's O'Hare adds more than $1,000 to the fuel bill.

No wonder, then, that many airlines are hurting. Not for nothing did Pan American sell its impressive headquarters building in New York. To ease a cash-flow problem Braniff sold 16 of its fleet of 727s recently. United likewise felt obliged to sell aircraft. Low air fares, resulting from deregulation, and reduced passenger traffic because of the current recession, have combined with fuel costs to push many companies to the brink. Where 60 percent capacity meant a profitable flight before deregulation, 82 percent is now the break-even point across the Atlantic, according to British Airways. Bargain rates on transcontinental flights in the US are said to require full flights for even marginal profitability.

As a result, airlines have looked everywhere for ways to save on fuel. Some obvious approaches are slower cruising speeds (down to around 500 miles an hour compared with 550 in previous years) and taxiing to and from runways on one engine. Anywhere that weight can be saved is a big help. New slimline seats with improved sculpturing to make up for the 1 1/2 inches less padding in the backs cuts weight. It also allows more seats to be squeezed in, which most airlines are doing for economic reasons.

Even the reduction of paint on aircraft makes an unbelievable (to the layman) difference in aircraft weight and therefore in fuel consumption. By removing all the white paint and leaving only the two-tone blue stripe on its planes, Eastern is cutting 447 pounds on each of its L1011 wide-body planes. In addition the bare aluminum is being highly polished to cut down on drag. All told Eastern expects to save $3 million in fuel once the entire fleet has been treated in this way. American Airlines has long benefited from this approach.

A new computerized avionic system, known as the Omega, can now fly a plane more efficiently than any human. It automatically computes the optimum flying speed and altitude in given weather conditions for maximum fuel efficiency. Within the guidelines imposed by ground control the plane makes the necessary adjustments. Eastern calculates the introduction of this sytem has cut its annual fuel bill by some $2 1/2 million year.

No improved technology currently is in sight that promises the sort of quantum leap in fuel efficiency brought about by the change from prop to all-jet propulsion. But improved fuel efficiencies do lie ahead with the next generation of planes. Better engines and improved wing designs are the major contributing factors. Meanwhile, the Anglo-French A300, or Airbus, is the most fuel-efficient plane in the sky today. It is 30 percent better than the old workhorse and much smaller plane, the Boeing 727.

In the highly competitive and often confused airline world it pays consumers to shop around when contemplating a long flight. Get quotes from four or more travel agents. It's not inconceivable that you will get four different prices and you can pick the least expensive.

A relative of mine - a mining engineer from Johannesburg -- had to attend some seminars in London recently. Inquiries at the airline booking office revealed that, for some absurd reason, he could fly to London via the United States for $25 less than the direct light -- twice the distance for less money! The net result was the he payed me an unexpected visit.

Similarly some dogleg flights in the US are cheaper than the direct journey. For example, a New york businessman who flies regularly to Chicago for around $ 340 direct, recently discovered Piedmont Airline's "hopscoth" fares. For $140 he flew to Raleigh in North Carolina where he waited one hour for a connection of Chicago. "My salary isn't anywhere near $200 (his one-way saving) an hour so the stopover is worth it," he says.

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