It’s an age-old debate that fluctuates with every spike in fuel costs: Should we fly or drive? With airlines (we’re looking at you, Delta) experiencing crippling technical issues that force them to make public statements like, “Large-scale cancellations are expected today,” it’s no wonder that some people prefer to take matters into their own hands. But there’s more to it than personal preference; according to a report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, comparative studies on energy consumption in vehicles and airplanes has proven that flying can be a far more efficient way to travel long distances.
Yes, flying still sucks, and after spending entirely too much in airports thanks to cancellations and delayed connecting flights lately, our hearts go out to everyone who’s sitting there stranded right now. But at the end of the day, flying has the edge. On top of speed, modern airplanes also seat more people than ever before, resulting in more travelers arriving at a destination more efficiently and on a single tank of jet fuel.
But while flying may get a traveler to their destination a lot quicker, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s still one hell of a hassle. Many still abhor the thought of ludicrously long lines, delayed and cancelled flights, cramped cabins, beaten-up baggage, and touchy-feely TSA agents. Just getting in and out of an airport alone can be stressful, and the bigger the airport is, the longer the wait for everything from a boarding pass to a bathroom break. But thanks to this recent study, there’s now proof that these grievances are a necessary evil for travelers who need to get somewhere as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Still, this raises a serious question: How many Americans are actually going to let go of such objections for the sake of going green? It’s an issue that goes beyond the statistics, and there’s a growing number of travelers that would rather arrive on their own terms than go through the hassle at the airport, even when the study proves that traveling by car uses about twice as much energy.
For as green and efficient as many of us would like to be, we don’t see this information changing the minds of people who would never trade their keys for a boarding pass. Because what the report doesn’t tell you is that with a few people and a little planning, you can get your car to give a plane a run for its money.
The University of Michigan study was conducted by researcher Michael Sivak, is based primarily on data from a 2012 study by the Department of Transportation. In his report, Sivak claims that energy intensity when driving a car is 2.07 times greater than hopping on a domestic passenger flight, as calculated in British Thermal Units. BTUs are “the amount of heat necessary to raise one pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit,” and are a small energy measurement.
At the time of the DOT study, the average energy needed for driving a car required 4,211 BTUs per person per mile. The energy intensity of flying was just over half that at 2,033 BTUs per person per mile. Sivak updated his findings in 2015, claiming that “the advantage of flying has increased even further.” With airlines fitting more people on flights than ever before, the per-person BTU rate has dropped significantly.
“Flying domestically in the U.S. used to be much more energy intensive than driving, but that is no longer the case,” says Sivak. “One of the main reasons is that the proportion of occupied seats on airplanes has increased substantially, while the number of occupants in cars and other light-duty vehicles has decreased.”
Sivak also discovered that the average drive is also considerably shorter than ever before — just nine miles — while the average domestic flight is about 895 miles long. But long distance flights continue to be less energy intensive since they “use a disproportionate amount of fuel during takeoffs,” which stands in contrast to the fuel economy gains of American light-duty cars since 2012, which were averaging just 21.6 miles per gallon at the time, and now hover somewhere around 25.4 miles-per-gallon. At the end of the day, however, Sivak says cars would need to average 44.7 miles-per-gallon across the board to compete with airlines. While some hybrids and economy cars can claim numbers like that, we’re still a long way from that becoming the norm.
But don’t write the road trip off just yet, because as Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, “Well allow me to retort.” Sivak states in his report: “As vehicle load increases, the amount of fuel consumed per person mile decreases (even after taking into account the increased weight to be carried).” In other words: A highly fuel-efficient car loaded with passengers remains an excellent option, especially if Delta leaves you and your co-workers stranded and Hertz has a Prius available.
Sivak’s pro-flying report made headlines when it was released, but one of the only media sources to pick up on the carpool angle was The Washington Post, which argued that the energy consumption of an airliner can be considerably more than a car full of people, especially when traveling 4-5 hour distances. It that “We all drive different cars different distances, with different numbers of passengers in them; and our flying habits are also divergent. So these averages can hide quite a lot of diversity in transportation practices – and how much energy they use.”
There’s also the matter of environmental impact, which in this case, comes out as close to a draw. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released numerous findings highlighting the detrimental effects airplanes have on the environment, and while there are more cars on the ground than flights in the sky, jets still have a major impact on the planet.
So until the hassles associated with flying have been figured out, taking a four hour road trip with friends or family is just as good an option – if not better. Long distance flights are far more time and energy efficient, but they don’t give you the freedom to stop at a drive-thru milkshake stand, conduct conference calls, or sing along to the radio. Plus, if we really want to be energy efficient we’d take a train or a bus, because according to the Department of Transportation these both have a far lower energy intensity consumption rate than driving or flying.