Cramped seat pitch? At least the planet's benefitting
Airlines that squeeze more passengers onto planes might be helping their bottom line, but the environment also benefits, as a study in the US has shown.

A White Paper from The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has surveyed the major US domestic airlines and ranked them according to their fuel efficiency. Alaska Airlines came top of the not-for-profit organisation's list for the fourth year, but unsurprisingly, it was the budget brands that followed closely behind in 2014 with Spirit, Frontier, and Southwest Airlines remaining the next three most fuel-efficient domestic carriers. 

Fleet renewals and high-density seating are the reason for these carriers' top rankings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, airlines that typically offer a first class section and still have older aircraft in their fleets, including Delta and American Airlines, languished outside the ICCT's top 10. 

Taking Alaska Airlines as the base measure of efficiency, the difference between it and 13 competitors was as much as 25%. However, one reason for optimism is that this difference has narrowed from 27% in 2013 and there are other improvements not restricted to the budget sector: From 2013 to 2014, overall industry fuel efficiency improved by 1.7%, in part due to a 1% increase in passenger load factor and a 1.6% increase in seating density.

The ICCT noted "a steady increase" in seats available per flight, driven by airlines making upgrades to larger aircraft and adding more seats to existing aircraft over the past five years. It says that these changes allow airlines to move the same number of passengers on fewer flights, which translates to increased fuel efficiency. However, it notes that there is a downside to this, with reduced passenger comfort and fewer airports served, plus longer wait times between flights. 

The two top carriers in the report have both used new aircraft types and innovations to boost fuel efficiency. Alaska Airlines, for example, has fitted winglets to many of its fleet, which cut fuel burn by around 1.5%, a considerable saving over the life of an aircraft. 

Leading the budget brands is Spirit Airlines, which has a modern fleet of Airbus A320 short-haul aircraft that typically carry 178 people, 28 more passengers than those of full-service airlines. However, it can go further, as the European budget airline standard for this aircraft is 180 seats. Spirit tied with Alaska Airlines for first place in the ICCT league in 2013 and such a move could see it lift the crown.

Spirit can look across the Atlantic for inspiration. From May next year, Easyjet will take delivery of the first 186-seat A320, using slimline seats and a new cabin layout to make space for six more passengers than usual without, the airline claims, affecting legroom.

The ICCT singles out another budget airline, Allegiant Air, for praise. It was ranked 15th of 15 carriers in the efficiency ranking in 2010, but is now at eighth due to a fleet renewal programme that has seen 1980s MD-80 aircraft progressively taken out of service. Their replacements; a fleet of used A320s, are already first or second place for fuel efficiency among this type on US domestic routes due to high load factors and dense seating layout.

At the bottom of the league, there is also room for optimism. The ICCT praises American Airlines, ranked 13th of 13 carriers, noting that "absolute fuel efficiency improved substantially" from 2013. Last year, replacements of older aircraft saw the airline consume 3% less fuel on a typical flight than previously.

The gap between the least and most fuel-efficient carriers will narrow as more fleets are renewed. Lighter, slimline seats that do not recline may not be popular with some regular travellers, but airlines will fit them, and more of them, onto existing aircraft as well as new orders. Legacy carriers will also doubtless rip out any on-board entertainment system in favour of much lighter and more fuel-efficient streamed systems.

Passengers may not be sitting as comfortably in future, but at least they're doing their bit for the planet.

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