As the holidays draw close, travelers typically dust off their frequent flyer miles and book affordable airline tickets to spend quality time with family, escape to paradise, or get away from it all. This year, however, many are opting for staycations and video chats instead of sandals on the beach.
These are strange times, indeed. The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has thwarted plans to go home, visit family, do business, and relax on vacation, resulting in planes not flying as frequently. At a time when airports are normally humming with travelers on business or in search of tropical climates, would-be flyers are now hunkering down in their homes.
To better understand how the pandemic has shaped the air travel industry, we studied airplane fuel consumption before and during COVID-19. This showed us how impacted the travel industry was by the pandemic in terms of fuel left unused compared to last year, loss of income for airlines, and the decrease in demand overall.
However, the decrease in fuel use also represents an environmental benefit, which is certainly a silver lining to the pandemic. To understand fully how dramatically airline fuel use has decreased, we took a look at the numbers.
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We compiled six months’ worth of fuel data from the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics to evaluate airline fuel consumption in 2020 compared to previous years. Specifically, we looked at annual, domestic, and international fuel consumption this year compared to last year. Our analysis examined fuel consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic in comparison to pre-pandemic fuel usage.
We were able to compare fuel use in 2020 with previous years and see the drop in annual consumption of fuel year over year, monthly fuel consumption during COVID-19 compared to the year before, as well as the difference in cost to airlines.
Annual Consumption Year-Over-Year Comparison
It’s no secret that many flyers are skipping annual vacations and making plans closer to home. Companies are canceling conferences and business trips, and flying is generally down. But just how bad is it?
We wanted to paint a picture of long-term fuel consumption trends in order to get our bearings on more recent data during the pandemic. To do that, we looked at fuel consumption year over year for the last 20 years.
Interestingly, consumption tended to rise and fall for years at a time. The longest period of decline was from 2005 through 2013. It will not come as a surprise that one of the biggest dips in flying came in 2009 (-9.7%) when the economic downturn of the great recession was in full swing. Only 2012 gave the recession a run for its money with a drop of 3%.
Shortly after, domestic travel bounced back with fuel usage increasing for 6 consecutive years from 2014 through 2019. The highest year-over-year increase during this time was 4.46% in 2018.
International findings were more sporadic, with a few key consistencies that we noted. Airline travel was still down by 7.67% in 2009, and 9 out of 10 of the years that followed showed growth in fuel consumption.
That brings us to 2020, where we have incomplete data. At the time of this writing, airlines have consumed about 5.4 billion gallons of fuel year to date, which is 70.36% less than the almost 18.3 billion gallons consumed in all of 2019.
Pandemic Fuel Consumption
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted daily life on many levels. Whether putting off a trip to the grocery store or to Greece, many people have changed their travel behavior during the pandemic. We took the amount of airline fuel used per month in 2020 and compared it to that same data from 2019 to examine the downturn that air travel took as the pandemic unfolded.
In the early months of January 2020 and February 2020, fuel consumption actually increased by 2.6% and 2.94%, respectively. Whether it’s because information on the coronavirus was scarce or people simply didn’t have their guard up yet, travel was normal in comparison to the prior year.
From then on, however, things changed, and more planes stayed grounded. In March, airliner fuel consumption decreased by 23.48%, then plummeted from April through June. May saw the worst hit at -71.37%. In June, only 558 million gallons of fuel were used compared to 1.6 billion the year before.
Pandemic Total Monthly Fuel Consumption Comparison
Breaking that data down further, we looked at fuel consumption for domestic travel, consumption for international travel, and the cost of fuel individually. Once again, January is the outlier where we actually see a slight increase in travel and the cost of fuel. Overall, total consumption rose by about 2.6%, making January the most stable month of 2020 for airlines so far.
Starting with February, fuel consumption fell further for international flights than domestic flights in every month except May—where the percentages were neck and neck. This was likely brought about by a higher level of concern over flying abroad as well as stricter government regulations around international travel. Many countries closed their borders to international visitors at some point during 2020.
Why This Matters
The travel industry has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic for obvious reasons. However, the silver lining here is that from an environmental standpoint, this dramatic reduction in fuel use has been excellent for the planet.
According to Science of the Total Environment, NO2 declined 25.5% during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to previous years. Since NO2 is the pollutant that is produced by the burning of fuel, this statistic can largely be credited to the reduction of airline travel. According to the same publication, air quality has improved as a direct result of the dramatic reduction in travel rates. But that improvement might be short-lived, as already we’ve seen travel rates increase.
Wondering what this means in the real world? Using the EPA’s Greenhouse Gases Equivalency Calculator and Calculator.net’s Fuel Cost Calculator our team identified a few things that you could do with the fuel not used and the emissions not created from air travel during COVID-19. Check them out below!
According to our data, July is the first month in 2020 where the reduction of domestic and international fuel consumption was a smaller percentage than the drop in the preceding month. Monthly domestic consumption dropped by 62.88% in June compared to 71.64% in May. Monthly international consumption dropped 70.39% in June compared to 70.85% in May. Admittedly this is not a huge increase in fuel usage and one data point is not enough to establish a trend, but it offers the first indication that travel rates are turning around, barring another spike in infection.
The pandemic has fettered travelers for almost half of 2020 and the environmental impact is a major silver lining of the situation, but the fact is, we can’t all stay stuck at home permanently. Whether you had to cancel a trip or miss a special event far away, things are getting better. It is important to remember that this won’t last forever, and we will eventually reach for our carry-ons once again! The bustle of a busy (and safe) airport might be just around the corner. In the meantime, Upgraded Points is here to help you find the best travel rewards programs and get the best deals on your next trip, whenever that might be.