Airlines live by the economics of unit costs per mile. Using that formula I just filled my car at $3.35 a gallon here in the great but not always cheap state of Texas. A 16-gallon fill-up sets me back right at $54 for regular unleaded. My car's mileage over the course of a week of commuting to work and one or two trips for groceries and essentials is about 350 miles. That is right at 22 miles to the gallon over both highway and city mileage. If it were all highway I can add at least another 60 miles to that total before having to pull up again. An entire year of fuel burn, if I drove the same every week, including vacations, would be 832 gallons at an expense of $2800 for 18,200 miles. In airline breakdown that is 6.5 cents per mile with no change in the price of gas or the mileage driven. Doesn't sound so bad but how does that compare to flying?
This month Qantas will launch direct service from my home town of Dallas/Ft. Worth to Australia, featuring nonstop service to Brisbane with return nonstop service from Sydney. The smallest plane in their fleet that can handle the route is the 747-400ER which is no small bird to begin with. The A380 is too big, there aren't enough of them yet and the ones they have are suffering persistent teething problems with engines and fuel pumps. The new 787 would be perfect to start out but oops, those aren't delivered yet or ready to fly at this writing. The 747 it is and here are a few numbers to toss around for just this one flight that will operate only four days a week.
The -400 version has been around since 1989. It expanded upon the original -100 model to the tune of an additional 2300 miles in range (think of flying 11 hours from Athens to New York and then keep going another six hours to California without stopping). It ships 15,000 more gallons of fuel per flight in order to make that added flying possible and weighs 140,000 pounds more than the first one did for Pan Am back in 1970.
Did I say 15,000 more gallons? Yes, for a total of 63,700 gallons fully loaded for just one flight. And you can bet this flight will have a full load of fuel almost regardless of how many passengers are on board. That kind of fuel would need 76 years to burn for just me and my car but that's not a fair comparison. Spreading that fuel load over 450 passengers and you're talking 145 gallons per person to fly all the way to Australia. At 22 miles per gallon in my car that isn't even half the distance of getting there if driving to Brisbane were even possible!
There are millions of cars in the United States alone much less around the rest of the world. My car seats five but carries only me 95% of the time. Boeing 747s rarely operate with only one paying customer on board though it has happened. As of March 11th, the IATA website indicates the price of jet fuel ran at $3.15 per gallon, 20 cents off of what I paid. At that price Qantas has to shell out over $200,000 per flight for the new service from Dallas, the kind of money that would again take me over 70 years to spend if the price held steady that long. Spread it over 450 paying customers, though, and the cost is $445 per person, each way, about the same as it costs me to drive my car for two months.
I just looked at Qantas' website where the cheapest roundtrip ticket between Dallas and Brisbane is, wait for it, $988 round trip. That's hardly $100 over the total cost of fuel at the IATA price and does not necessarily include surcharges, airport or security fees much less the price of labor for the pilots and flight attendants or even the food. Yes, for 17 hours in the air they do feed you.
Just like you I don't like to pay any more than I have to for gas or the cost of a plane ticket. At the same time it is a bit more understandable when they say "seats are limited."