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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.