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Don’t ditch your car for a plane just yet

Why it isn’t actually more fuel efficient to fly to work.

‘Flying has become more energy efficient than driving’ was a recent news headline that raised the eyebrows of many in our transport team. The story followed a recent study by the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan and its findings implied we should fly rather than drive to get from A to B. It suggested journeys by aircraft are less fuel intensive than those taken by car:

“Transporting one person a distance of one mile by aircraft consumed on average the energy equivalent to 2,465 British thermal units (BTUs), compared with 4,211 BTUs for moving one person one mile by car, in 2012.”

According to Fergus Worthy, Technical Project Manager in our transport team, the study shouldn’t be read at face value.

Fergus explains: “The study is not applicable to fuel efficiency in the real world. First, it is only based on US cars, which are typically less efficient than European models. Additionally, these findings are based on a huge mileage (914 miles), which is the typical distance one would expect to complete by plane. The study doesn’t account for the journeys people take every day by car to get to work, pick up their kids from school or a trip to the shops.

It is generally less energy efficient to fly for these short-haul trips as most energy is consumed during take-off. Even for journeys around 300 miles or fewer, ground based public transport is by far the best option. It should not be suggested that flying is more efficient than driving for journeys like London to Edinburgh or Paris.

Regardless of how much creativity is employed in ‘efficiency’ calculations, such a study simplifies the environmental impacts of transport choices. Aviation emissions released at high altitude have a greater climate impact than the same emissions made at ground level.”

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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