June 01, 2008
Airlines Expected To Shrink As Peak Oil Bites

High oil prices have begun cutting down the size of the airline industry in the US and Europe with bankruptcies and route cancellations. What we've seen so far is only the beginning. The big airlines are losing money on every passenger and a combined market cap of just $17 billion.

To fully appreciate the impact that soaring oil prices have had on the nation's beleaguered airline industry, consider that U.S. carriers will likely spend $60 billion on jet fuel this year—nearly four times what they paid in 2000. Because of the spike in fuel costs, airlines now lose roughly $60 on every round-trip passenger, a slow bleed that puts the industry on pace to lose $7.2 billion this year, the largest yearly loss ever.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street has become so dour about the industry's prospects—can you say federal bailout?—that the combined market capitalization for the six major legacy carriers and Southwest Airlines has fallen to just over $17 billion.

Southwest is crowing that they locked in most of their 2008 fuel costs at the beginning of 2008 with big options buys. But in 2009 Southwest will be in the same boat as the rest of them.

Some experts expect a big cut in capacity up to 25%. But their estimates are on the low side of what is actually going to happen as oil production declines.

This consolidation will come with a cost: Experts believe that for the U.S. industry to shrink to a size that would allow the surviving carriers to earn a profit will require hefty fare hikes and a 20%-to-25% cut in capacity. That means fewer routes, fewer flights, and even more crowded planes.

Here's a twist I didn't expect. To reduce the amount of fuel that airplanes must carry long range aircraft will land partway through trips to refuel just as aircraft on long trips used to do decades ago.

Coast-to-coast flights will change, too. With roughly 30% of the weight of any transcontinental flight consisting of the fuel alone, meaning airlines are burning fuel just to carry fuel, carriers can be expected to replace many of those longer nonstops with one-stop flights, intended largely for refueling.

You might be thinking politically correct thoughts about the virtues of fuel efficient rail transport. Not so fast. Here are credible numbers from David Lawyer for passenger rail in the United States (historical and recent) getting 40-55 passenger miles per gallon. Well, two people in a Prius or a VW diesel will beat that easily.

The question still remains: Why aren't passenger trains more energy efficient if their rolling resistance is so low? There are a number of reasons, the major one being that trains are usually much heavier than autos (on a per passenger basis). Previously, the units used were rolling resistance per unit weight. If one takes into account the weight of the train per passenger, and then examines the rolling resistance per passenger, the advantage of rail over the auto drastically drops. For a very heavy passenger train, it will even favor the auto.

Just how heavy are passenger trains? There are various types of trains, some pulled by heavy locomotives and some that are driven by electric motors under each car. The ones pulled by locomotives tend to be very heavy and estimates made from US government data for 1963 (the government ceased collecting such data after that date) indicate about 3.7 tons/passenger. Automobiles are roughly one ton/passenger with an average of 1.6 persons/auto in an auto weighing 3,200 pounds. Thus rail was (in 1963) about 3.5 times heavier per passenger.

If one compares a lightweight auto with a lightweight train car, the train car weighs about twice as much per seat. A lightweight auto will weigh about 2,000 pounds with 5 seats (0.2 tons/seat). The (mostly aluminum) BART car (for the San Francisco rail transit) weighed 30 tons with 72 seats (0.42 tons/seat). The percentage of seats occupied by passengers on trains, is often not much different than for automobiles.

The Acela electric trainsets introduced by Amtrak in the early 21st century, are 2.1 tons/seat. This is ten times higher than that of a lightweight auto.

The heavy weight of trains not only increases rolling resistance, it also increases the energy used for climbing up a grade or accelerating from a stop. If the weight triples, so does such energy use.

Still, trains have a potential big advantage: The ability to be powered by electricity on electrified lines. We face more of a liquid fuel shortage than an general energy shortage. The cost of electricity is not going to rise as fast as the cost of oil.

For a continental trip trains have important advantages over cars including much greater safety and 24 hour per day operation. No need to stop to sleep. But the sleeper cars lower the ratio of passengers to train weight and therefore reduce energy efficiency and increase costs.

Jeff Radtke has done a very thorough comparison of fuel efficiency of different means of transportation. Go down past the graph and look at the table. In particular, see the person-MPG column. Note that the high numbers for freight-carrying vehicles (freight trains, oil tankers, etc) show how much more efficiently mass is moved when the mass in question is not humans. He has several numbers for trains from different sources. Some of his numbers are more like David Lawyer's referred to above. Those numbers make me think that rail advocates overestimate the fuel efficiency of rail for moving humans around. He shows a 747-8 with a full passenger load as more fuel efficient than some passenger trains. Still, rail powered by electricity could be powered by nukes, wind, and solar.

Note that Jeff has a 1936 era airship in his table with 224.96 passenger-miles per gallon. That surpasses passenger trains and passenger airplanes. So will peak oil lead to a revival of floating massive airships?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 June 01 12:57 PM  Energy Transportation

Allan said at June 1, 2008 2:47 PM:

That high speed rail on Jeff's chart looks a bit suspicious when comparing it to the other rail. I wouldn't put a whole lot of faith in those numbers.

No matter what your mode of transportation, it's all about weight. The greatest amount of energy is usually used just to set it all in motion. That's why you get better economy on the highway rather than in a city (constant stop and go).

The auto industry and the aircraft industries are constantly looking for ways to trim weight. Can we say the same for those who build the cars for passenger trains? I'd think there would be lots of opportunity to reduce the weight of the train cars.

Of course, everything becomes more efficient with more people. But there is also the cost and convenience factors. How are the costs per person in the car versus buying two tickets on the train and paying bus fare or taxi fare at the other end.

Back to airplanes, I've spent a lot of years in the transportation industry ... mostly in aviation. Yes, it cost fuel to carry fuel which is why you don't top off the tanks in airplanes ... you carry what you need for legal and safety reasons and no more! Trust me, these planes aren't flying around with full tanks between short stops or even on transcon flights unless they're tankering fuel because it's cheaper at the origin airport than at the destination. They've been reducing carrying excess fuel for years.

The main advantage to flying is speed. Given all the security hassles and other factors like cramped seats, most people are starting to fly as only a last resort. I know I don't fly commercial unless I must ... and I used to love to fly. I even have a pilot's license. Airships might find a niche market going overseas or other places when speed isn't an issue but they'll need to be a lot more comfortable since they will take a lot longer.

Andre said at June 2, 2008 1:44 PM:

Some current data from European high-speed trains.
Smartest French TGV carries 1090 passengers onboard double-decked cars (16 cars per long train). This include a high ratio of 1st class seats, two bars with a confort and space no more available in to-day aircrafts. It is about 700 Kg per passenger and achieves 320 km/h (200 mph), thus challenging aircraft on trips up to 800 km (500 miles). Full (presently hypothetical-commercail choice) 2nd class train could weight less than 560 kg per passenger.
An amazing data: the yearly mileage of such trains tops 600,000 km (380,000 miles)- more than life-time distance of most cars. Oldest ones already ran for 25 years....
The data I got about energy consumption evaluates it at 38 Wh per passenger/km (=137 Kj=4.5 ml of gas)
Single-decked German ICE achieves 900 kg/passenger and energy costs around 55 Wh per passenger/km at an equivalent speed (300 km/h).

daniel charles said at June 2, 2008 3:04 PM:

The weight per passenger is a relevant factor ONLY when accellerating (or braking). At continuous speed, weight per passenger is totally irrelevant. What matters then is wake & friction resistances. With regard to wake (aerodynamic drag), the aerodynamics of one 1090 passenger train are much better that those of some 600 cars. With regard to friction, one wagon (carrying about 72 persons) has probably less contact area with the tracks than one single car carrying 1.6 person. These are the real parameters of resistance, and the car doesn't stand a chance there.

Randall Parker said at June 2, 2008 6:17 PM:


Interesting data. That 38 Wh per passenger-km works out to 62 Wh per passenger mile. To put that in perspective: I've read figures for electric cars needing between 250 (seen this for the Prius) and 500 Wh per passenger mile.

If you put 4 people into a Prius and put a bigger battery in the Prius you'd get electric energy efficiency similar to that of trains. Of course, most people traveling by car do not carry 3 passengers besides themselves. Plus, they do not have batteries big enough to carry them far. But the friction efficiency advantage from trains does not seem so large.

The big advantage of the car is that it takes you from where you live to where you want to go.

Your weights per passenger seem lower than numbers I've seen elsewhere. Are they based on 100% occupancy?

Jeff Radtke said at June 2, 2008 7:54 PM:

Regarding your airship question, peak helium and fear of hydrogen fires may preclude widespread adoption of this technology for passenger service. I think it may make a lot of sense for moving a heavy mass to a remote location. Several commercial firms are looking into this.

Regarding my suspicious numbers, the high speed rail data came from a paper entitled _"What Price Speed?", Revisited_ by Teitler and Proodian, and published in the _Journal of Energy_ Vol 4, p.46. (1980) They did not show their work, but by carefully looking at newer vehicles we can see if they were close to the mark.

I did verify this for the 747 using Boeing's specifications and FAA regulations for reserve fuel requirements. A more complete and accurate version of the energetic performance chart may be found in the paper published in _The Open Energy and Fuels Journal_ Vol 1, p11. Footnotes in this table show where the numbers came from.

Do you have a URL or other reference for your train data? Is energy specified as electrical or thermal Watt-hours?

Allan said at June 3, 2008 7:20 AM:

Gas prices send travelers to Amtrak


Jeff, it just that some of the numbers don't look right but I'm not going to do a whole of calculating to check them.

PaulHunt said at June 3, 2008 11:09 AM:

Numerous people are proposing that the airlines are going to shrink. I was reading an article which pretty much backs up most of this author's main points. The article is called Silent Spring for Aviation and it attacks the situation from a financial stand point with expert opinions on the rising price of oil. Its very interesting a quick read compared to this article. Thanks Ya'll

Andre said at June 3, 2008 12:50 PM:

The data about the French HST come from French Wikipedia (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGV_Duplex), also available in English ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SNCF_TGV_Duplex) and I have checked them against various sources. It is around 700 kg/passenger.
The estimation of the electrical consumption comes from a French agency, ADEME, independant from the railway company; it corresponds roughly to half of the powertrain max consumption (2*9100 kW) being used at the average speed of 300 km/h. Very plausible as the track are not very hilly and such train make few stops (commonly, legs are 300-500 km long).
The energy is electrical. The CO2 equivalence given in the same study (2.3 gCO2/passenger/km) is "biased" by the fact that France has a very high ratio of nuclear electricity.

You can also find data about double-decked Shikansen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E4_Series_Shinkansen) giving a capacity of 1634 passengers. As far as I can guess the Japanese version, the total weight is 956 tons, giving a ratio of 580 kg per passenger. No guarantee on these figures.

Jeff Radtke said at June 4, 2008 9:11 AM:


Thanks for your references. Your link didn't work as entered, probably because of the parenthesis at the end.

700 kg is "per seat," and I assume that this equals the mass of the train divided by the total number of passenger seats. Power is "installed power, not all of which is used when operating." You point out that another source estimated that half of the installed power is used to move the train at 300 kph.

My calculations use actual payload mass and thermal power consumption. Payload mass is one tenth the per seat mass. Thermal power consumption is easily determined for nuclear power generation. Commercial nuclear power plants are designed around the Rankine steam cycle, and have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 33%, which equals the electrical power output divided by the thermal power input. The efficiency in transmission across the electrical grid is about 96%.

So, calculating with your source numbers:
Half of installed power per passenger = 8.1 KW (electrical)
Generation efficiency = 0.33
Transmission efficiency = 0.96
Thermal power per passenger = 8.1/(0.33*0.96) = 26 KW (thermal)
Passenger weight = 70 kg
Average speed = 300 km hr-1 = 83 m s-1
Effective energetic performance = 2KE/Pth = 70*(83^2)/26000 = 19 seconds
Thermal energetic efficiency = 70 kg * 83 m s-1 / 26000 J s-1 = 0.22 kg m J-1

This result fits between the other train points in the chart.

Randall Parker said at June 4, 2008 6:16 PM:


So then to move a passenger 300 km requires 8.1 KWH delivered to the train? Or am I misunderstanding?

I wonder what the cost is for delivering the electricity to the train. The US averages about 10.64 cents/kwh retail. Are we talking 90 cents worth of electricity to move a passenger 300 km? That's 186 miles. So about half a cent per mile.

A half cent per mile would be very cheap. Picture travelling across the US 3000 miles. That'd be 1500 cents or $15 dollars for the electricity.

Jeff Radtke said at June 5, 2008 6:15 AM:


Yes, 8.1 kW-hr of electricity per person, to travel 300 km; if the train is full and rarely stops.

Randall Parker said at June 5, 2008 5:23 PM:


I wonder what the energy costs would be to build a transcontinental TGV railroad track. The energy cost of moving the passengers is so low that if the tracks are affordable I'd expect rail to become far more attractive once the decline after Peak Oil grounds most airplanes.

Jeff Radtke said at June 6, 2008 6:19 PM:


I ignored the energy costs of vehicle and infrastructure construction because there are so many unknowns. Results strongly depend on how well the system is used and maintained, and if the materials are recycled at end of life. By contrast, the relationships between incremental thermal energy use, payload mass, speed and GHG emissions are easily determined.

John Faughnan said at June 7, 2008 7:43 PM:

I've been wondering about the fuel efficiency of cruise ships. At some point does transatlantic travel by boat start to become cost effective for those with more time than money?

Randall Parker said at June 7, 2008 8:12 PM:

John Faughnan,

I found in the comments of a Wired blog post a comment from "ASME Guy" saying the QE2 luxury liner is much less fuel efficient than a passenger airliner:

Passenger ship:

Lets take the QE2 as an example (Why? Because I found the "official" specs)

The QE2 typically makes about 25 knots, which is about 46 km/h. 5700 km from London to New York. About 120 hrs (5 days).

This is at a fuel rate of 3 tonnes heavy fuel per hour per each of the 4 diesels, so about 12 tonnes per hour. This is (pardon the pun) cruise speed. Top speed (30 knots) burns double that. So, 12 tonnes /46.3 km is about 275 kg of fuel per km.

Carrying capacity is about 2000 passengers (not including crew), it works out to 137.5 grams heavy fuel per passenger km, or about 7.3 km per L. Convert to miles per gallon for the yanks is roughly 17 mpg heavy fuel oil. Now this is more energy (and carbon) rich fuel than gasoline. Doing a Gigajoule / CO2 conversion to gasoline equivalent works out to about 15 mpg.

So, the QE2 gets about 15 mpg per passenger on a full normal load of passengers and takes 5 days to get there. This doesnt include fuel spent on the passengers going TO the sea port.

To pick out a particular source for milage for aircraft, see

Page 30, 15,730,302,000 passenger miles flown and 241,087,000 gallons of aviation fuel used is about 65.2 passenger mpg. This is an average across their fleet. Again, adjusted for gasoline equivalancy assuming AVTUR is the fuel in question, milage is about 60 mpg. According to typical IATA stats this is normal for aircraft.

For people moving, aircraft are faster, more fuel efficient and more flexible than a cruise ship.

Mostly people need to travel less.

Aircraft get really good milage.

The numbers wouldn't look nearly so bad for a ship designed to pack people in more tightly than does a deluxe cruise ship.

My guess is that people will just travel a lot less.

SamuM said at June 19, 2008 1:08 AM:

The complete lifecycle analysis in Finland using Material Input Per Service Unit gave the following interesting findings (applicable to Finland!):

Consumption of natural resources by transport type ()

Freight transport natural resource consumption
Transport non-renewables# Air#
Train 0,54 0,02
Freightliner truck 0,23 0,04
Van 10,78 1,4
Aircraft (to Europe) 1,10 1,4
Boat (to Europe) 0,12 0,1

# kg/tonne-kilometer

Transport fuel consumption example for an average daily work commute,
where below options are available
Transport Air*
Bike (15km) 0,2
Bus (14km) + metro (4km) 1,0
Alone in a car (19km) 3,6
* Air consumption is an indicator of fuel consumption only!

Non-renewables consumption for an inter-city travel
Transport (kg/person/trip)
Bus 174
Airplane 190
Train 198
Alone in a car 1092

You can find the full report, with all the data, methodology and details at (in English):


From Peak Oil perspective it makes sense to think about existing infrastructure and the maintenance costs (in resources, not money!) for that, not just how many units of energy does each vehicle consume per kg-kilometer.

The MIPS measure is not perfect, but it's much better than just counting direct CO2 emissions, imho.

It is also worth noting that for aviation, CO2 is not a sufficient or correct measure as noted, one must take into account the full forcing effects of contrails (condensation, ozone, CO2, etc). This is much larger than CO2 alone.

As for economic proxies used to calculate 'efficiency' of each transport, I consider them utterly misleading. The price externalities for crude oil distillates are so big and may not be equal across distillates. Therefor money-based approximation (like EIO-LCA) are not reliable.

PS Gav, can you make it so that that the PRE-html tag works. Impossible to format ASCII tables quickly with variable width font...

SamuM said at June 19, 2008 1:09 AM:

Oops, the PRE tag worked! Great. Just doesn't show up in the preview. Weird.

Dave said at May 30, 2010 1:42 PM:

Here's a good article on aviation after peak oil, if I may post a link:


Randall Parker said at May 30, 2010 3:56 PM:


I read your article. Also check out a recent report from MIT about the potential for large improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In what could set the stage for a fundamental shift in commercial aviation, an MIT-led team has designed a green airplane that is estimated to use 70 percent less fuel than current planes while also reducing noise and emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx).CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In what could set the stage for a fundamental shift in commercial aviation, an MIT-led team has designed a green airplane that is estimated to use 70 percent less fuel than current planes while also reducing noise and emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx).

They do not expect these airplanes to fly until 2035, really too late for Peak Oil.

We need a workable cost effective way to grow algae for biofuels. But I also expect that to come too late.

Nick G said at May 30, 2010 6:10 PM:

Randall, we have quite a while to adapt to PO.

Kjell Aleklett, President of ASPO International: by 2030 production is likely to fall 11 per cent, to just 76 million barrels a day.

Look at page 40 of the presentation: http://www.aspo-australia.org.au/References/Aleklett/20090611%20Sydney4.pdf
This projection is for a .5% annual decline rate over the next 20 years.

On page 42 of the presentation - we see that this projection is precisely in the middle - between the "Standard Case High End" and "Standard Case Low End".

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