Fuel Flying Cross USA

Q: You mentioned the fuel efficiency of airplanes versus cars. How much fuel does it take to fly me across the country?

Traveling between New York and San Francisco, a medium-sized jetliner like a Boeing 767 — a common model for this route — will consume roughly 7000 gallons of jet fuel (not even a third of what its tanks can typically carry, by the way).

That’s equivalent to a little less than half a mile per gallon. But on a full flight with 200 passengers, it’s 32 gallons per person, or nearly 80 miles per gallon, per person, which sounds much more impressive. If you’re the type who likes calculators, further crunching reveals 0.014 gallons for each, as they’re termed in the trade, seat mile.

To get a sense of industry-wide economy, you’d have to cipher averages of per-flight occupancy (in 2001 flights were operating at about 70 percent capacity), per-hour fuel burn, and flight distance. And in deference to critics, if jetting across the continent weren’t such a practical endeavor, only a fraction of today’s passengers would actually be doing it. Still, overall efficiency is far and away better than a 16 mpg SUV carrying one or two people.

As for emissions, like I said, commercial aviation accounts only for about five percent of worldwide fossil fuel use. Not fully understood, however, are the impacts of chemically-laden contrails, and whether jet exhaust, injected directly into the upper troposphere, is uniquely harmful to the atmosphere.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.