What Is Fuel Tankering And Why Should You Care?

Reports today have shown how deeply the issue of fuel tankering runs in the European short-haul market. The practice could be responsible for some 901,000 tonnes of additional CO2 being produced by aviation every year, a statistic that is not going to reflect well on flying in the current climate. We take a look at what exactly fuel tankering is, and why it should be a concern to all of us.

Fuel tankering
What is fuel tankering and why does it matter? Photo: Tom Boon/Simple Flying

What is fuel tankering?

The practice of fuel tankering is when an aircraft deliberately carries excess fuel in order to reduce or eliminate refueling at its destination. When a destination is known to be selling aircraft fuel at a higher cost than the airport of origin, airlines will sometimes carry extra fuel on board so they can minimize the amount they spend when they arrive.

Fuel tankering
Airlines will sometimes load up extra fuel to avoid refueling at the destination. Photo: Tom Boon/Simple Flying

With fuel accounting for some 17-25% of an airline’s operating expenses, it’s in their best interests to drive this cost down as much as they can. While investing in newer, more efficient aircraft is one way to do this, reducing the cost of purchasing fuel is clearly another.

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However, there; s a big problem with this. Carrying tonnes of extra fuel adds to the weight of the aircraft significantly. This, in turn, increases fuel burn in flight, causing additional emissions to be produced.

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How many airlines engage in fuel tankering?

Research by European ATC agency Eurocontrol has shown that some 15 % of flights in the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) area are using full fuel tankering. This means flights are arriving at their destination with enough fuel on board (plus reserve fuel) to make the entire trip back to their origin without refueling. In addition, a further 15% of flights are using partial fuel tankering, where some amount of additional fuel is carried to reduce the amount of fuel bought at the destination.

Fuel tankering
Varying costs of fuel between airports encourages this practice. Photo: Tom Boon/Simple Flying

While Eurocontrol didn’t name any airlines, their research suggests that this practice is widespread, particularly on European short-haul routes.

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Is this really a problem?

In terms of the environmental impact, yes it is. Eurocontrol’s research shows that a 300nm flight operating with full fuel tankering would produce an additional 142kg of CO2 to be produced. Expand this to a greater distance, such as a 600nm flight, and the additional fuel burned leads to an increase in CO2 of some 528kg.

Per flight, this isn’t a lot. However, with an average of 30,000 flights per day in the ECAC, it soon starts to add up. Eurocontrol’s simulations showed that, over the course of a year, fuel tankering could be responsible for an additional 901,000 tonnes of CO2. This is equivalent to the emissions produced by an entire city of around 100,000 inhabitants over a year.

Ryanair CO2
With aviation under fire for its contribution to CO2 emissions, this is not a good look. Photo: Ryanair

In the current climate of environmental consciousness, aviation is being held up as the poster child for carbon emissions. Despite only being responsible for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, its reputation as the bad boy of the environment is proving difficult to shake. News like this coming to light only serves to undermine the good work being done by many airlines around the world, and to further reinforce the opinion that passengers should be ashamed for flying.

BA in hot water over fuel tankering

Today, the BBC has revealed that a Panorama investigation has uncovered British Airways’ use of fuel tankering. The report suggests that some 18,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide were additionally generated over the past year by the UK carrier due to this practice.

However, IAG boss Willie Walsh told Flight Global that IAG represents only 2% of the 901,000t of CO2 produced by fuel tankering, suggesting that although the BBC finger is being pointed at British Airways, the problem runs a whole lot deeper than this.

Fuel tankering
British Airways is being singled out by the BBC for fuel tankering. Photo: Tom Boon/Simple Flying

The issue is that, while fuel tankering is a poor decision from an environmental point of view, from a financial perspective it can make sense. Walsh stated that airlines are saving some €265m ($290m) a year through this practice, and in an environment where European airlines are struggling to make ends meet, some have little choice but to do it.

What do you think can be done to prevent fuel tankering in the future? UK readers can watch more on this story on BBC Panorama tonight at 20:30 GMT.

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High Mile Club

What could be done is certain airports not taxing the heck out of airlines just for running their engines. I know United does fuel tankering on some flights from IAD to EWR because NJ has some operation costs made specifically for them, which has angered United before. Even when sitting at idle, a jet engine would produce less CO2 than a car sitting somewhere.

I don’t approve of the practice because it could cause a plane to land with a heavy weight, risking damage to the landing gear and wing structure.

Jimmy

Are we not missing the point. This practice is undertaken because of differential fuel pricing. It’s not the airlines doing it – it’s the fuel suppliers who are causing this waste of fuel and excess production

High Mile Club

Jimmy, fuel suppliers give the airlines whatever amount of fuel they require. If they need 24000 lbs to go from Dulles to Newark, I’ll say that it’s excessive because they’d only need 15000 at best. But that’s what they want, so we have to comply.

Peter

I’m not explicitly approving the practice, but I can understand what the airlines’ argument is. It’s a bit hysterical for Greenpeace to jump on the matter as if it’s the end of the world (in the press this morning): after all, every car, bus and delivery van on the planet is carrying more fuel than it needs for a particular journey…and moving the cumulative weight of all that extra fuel amounts to a huge additional emission footprint. Also, Greenpeace attacked the practice because it “put profits before the environment”. What’s wrong with making a profit? How are airlines supposed to… Read more »

High Mile Club

The way Greenpeace tries to counter CO2 emissions is often counterproductive, and shows they don’t realize the ratio in which CO2 is emitted. They look at planes as a main cause of pollution, probably because of old pictures of Boeing 707s taking off or the old propeller driven aircraft spewing smoke. Now these days, engines are much cleaner and you rarely (if at all) notice the smoke from the fuel burning unless you look hard enough. A simple question one should ask them is: when you have a car and a plane sitting with the engine idle in cold weather,… Read more »

Peter

Well, most of them seem to be anarchists, so they’re not interested in counterarguments…

Matt

Both are very clean by historical standards. That’s why their broken science picked Carbon as their villain. It’s the most abundant element on Earth. The visible gas you see from a car in the winter is water vapor. It’s no different than contrails.

mohave

Contrails causing global warming is significant. A lighter plane could fly at 40,000 ft which is often above the contrail belt.

Lando

What are you even on about? I seriously don’t understand.

Matt

Don’t worry, he doesn’t understand either.

Longwayaway

Tankering is a jiggling exercise as an Airbus or Boeing typically use 35 Kg+/- of fuel per tonne per hour carried. To lug one tonne of fuel to be the last tonne used before top of descent on an ultra long ranged flight one is either left with less than half a tonne or one has to consume a second tonne to get the tonne to be be used to where its needed towards the end of the flight.

Smokerr

Making the whole system more efficient is vastly better than trying to micro manage fueling choices. Years back they descended on Fore (greenies) like horde of locusts for the Excursions (?) Its way too big. How bout the Class 8 pickup trucks? Nope, just Ford. Taking one off examples and blowing them out of proportion is stupid but gets press. In the meantime they ignore the Duke Energy Sludge ponds that blew out and poisoned the area and a river for how long downstream? And the idiots have not a clue if a flight is facing really bad weather and… Read more »

Jeffrey Beaumont

What a bunch of garbage, the “so-called” environmentalists” need to get a life.

Jim Holding

Why not have a standard set price for fuel at all European airports,so everyone charged the same price won’t need to carry all the extra fuel then.

Roger Samson

Which organizations have completed analyses of how much the total cost of building and flying aircraft compared to other modes of transportation from the time raw materials are extracted from the earth to finished , in-service products like trains, planes and automobiles? Also include all the fuels from gasoline, kerosine, bio-fuels, electric.
I don’t know the answers. I recall that some studies comparing electric power to fossil fuels were completed, and electric wasn’t as great as advertised.

High Mile Club

It really isn’t. I don’t even like the idea of an all-electric aircraft. Main reason being that I fear I would overtax the battery and potentially cause a fire. Once a battery fire starts, there’s nothing you can do to put it out until the battery itself fully drains.

Joseph C Nucifora

I have a question.. Isn’t it very dangerous to land with a full tank of fuel-thus the reason some planes, in certain cranstances, dump fuel before landing back at their origin when a problem occurs? If that is the case how is tankering even allowed when it comes to passenger safety? I thank anyone in advance for explaining this so l may understand the significance of the entire situation as a whole.

Matt

That’s long haul widebodies that have to dump fuel because they store a tremendous amount more fuel for their long journeys. Narrow bodies for the most part can land fully loaded. I’m not sure if there’s an exception with the A321LR and XLR, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

High Mile Club

all aircraft are required to land within a certain weight threshold. If the aircraft is too heavy, it cause the landing gear to collapse in a worst-case scenario. Otherwise, all other heavy or a hard Landing requires that the landing gear and struts be checked, as well as the part that connects the landing gear to the wing box.

Yong KM

An airplane take-off weight limit is higher than the landing weight limit. This mean an aircraft could takeoff but may not be able to land (depending on the number of passengers or cargo or in this case tankering of fuel); – mainly landing an over-weight airplane subject the aircraft to more structural stress. So, if an airplane lifts off and has to return to an airport because of an issue, the weight of the unburied fuel would result in an overweight landing. In normal circumstances this would not be an issue if the airplane had continued to its planned destination… Read more »

Tom Boon

They can land overweight, but unless it’s a serious emergency, they won’t as it can damage the aircraft and requires lots of checks afterwards.

teribilescu

Any solution to the issue of tankering will end up with passengers paying more and some airlines failing.

The most equitable though would be the carbon tax. If the carbon tax is higher than the cost savings, then it may just work. Passengers will have to pay from their (commercial or private) pockets, and so air travel might have a downward turn for a while; but it’s always the same thing: short term gain vs. long term pain.

Hein Vandenbergh

I really do not think that differential pricing is the whole story. LCCs doing cheap, short hops want a quick turnaround. Refuelling the a/craft may just chew into that turnaround time. I understand that Ryanair, possible Easyjet, do not want a turnaround of more than 25 minutes. Not all that time can be spent refuelling, so it’s easier to minimise the number of times a plane is refuelled. Also, back at ‘home-base’ the operator is likely to have better contractual arrangements, not so much in terms of $/kgm of fuel, but by actually owning the delivery infrastructure.

Dave

By having jet fuel prices more evenly spread, fuel tankering will taper off