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Flying vs. Driving…

January 1st, 2007 · 9 Comments


During our flight from Providence, RI to Phoenix, AZ last Thursday, we were asked by a young passenger exactly how much fuel we burned between PVD and PHX and how much the fuel cost. The answers to his questions required only quick figuring on our part, and we called back to have the flight attendant relay the answers to the young man.

But this was a six-hour flight. So out of sheer boredom, we decided to deplete our calculator’s batteries even further by attempting to figure out exactly how much our flight between PVD and PHX cost the company to operate. And then some.

The air-distance between PVD and PHX is approximately 2,000 nautical miles. It took us 5 hours and 14 minutes to move between the two airports, averaging around 380 knots across the ground.

Our company’s cost of operation is typically expressed in terms of available seat miles (Cost per Available Seat Mile or CASM). This cost includes EVERY cost required to run the airline, which is then divided by the number of miles our route-structure covers, and divided again by the number of available passenger seats in our fleet. Presently, our CASM is approximately seven cents.

So to figure out the cost of our flight from PVD to PHX, we take the 2,000 nautical miles traveled and multiply it first by the number of passenger seats on our aircraft (137), and then multiply the result by our CASM of $.07.

2,000nm X 137 seats X CASM = $19,180

So a figure just shy of $20K is what it cost the airline to operate that flight. That includes (as I said before) the cost of everything required to operate the flight. Here’s a short list of some of the costs (and their amounts if I could figure them):

- Aircraft lease fees
- Fuel ($8,007.12 worth, where our fuel burn was 27,100 lbs or about 4,044 gal at an average cost to the company of $1.98 per gallon)
- Maintenance costs
- Flight crew ($2,034, with the lion’s share going to the Captain)
- Cabin crew (approximately $1,150)
- Drinks/Snacks (approximately $1,000)
- Deicing (approximately $500)

Remembering that our cost for this flight is about $20K, let’s take a look at fares and how much money was made by the flight. The average fare listed on our company’s website was $227 for a seven-day advanced purchase (the most expensive fare being $329 and the least expensive being $99). If you multiply the fare by the number of seats on the aircraft, you can determine the revenue made for the flight. In this case, our flight’s revenue was $31,099. That revenue could vary quite a bit, depending upon (among other things) the actual types of tickets actually purchased. And, of course, that doesn’t account for cargo we may have had on board.

The airline’s profit would be the difference between the revenue and the cost, or $11,919 for our flight from PVD to PHX.

Is flying cheaper than driving?

If you were to take 137 people who all wanted to drive from Providence airport to Phoenix airport, you’d need 35 cars when seating four per car.

The road-mileage between the two airports is 2,650 statute miles.

Average gas mileage for a Honda Accord is 30 miles per gallon.

Average price of auto gas is $2.29 per gallon.

It would take each car 88.3 gallons to drive that distance. The fleet total would be 3,179 gallons. It would cost $7,280 to fuel the cars for the trip. Add another $1,000 for miscellaneous maintenance (along with sodas and beef jerky) and we’re talking $8,280. Lodging? Another $1000. Cost per person runs about $70. CHEAP! But wait! It will take 45 hours of driving to cover that distance. And time is money, right? Figure the average income of the passengers to be about $20/hour and multiply that out. The time alone is worth about $123,000!!!

And all that figuring ate up about an hours worth of enroute boredom.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anonymous // Jan 2, 2007 at 12:21 am

    Sir, this is very interesting. However, are you sure your airline does not mind you revealing their CASM? I don’t know but could it be a commercially sensitive number?

  • 2 Ron // Jan 2, 2007 at 1:23 am

    I’ve always wondered how airlines make money with the $99 fares they have. I guess the last minute $800 tickets make up for people like me who end up flying first class for free. :) To be honest, I’m surprised it only cost $20,000 to fly that leg. You can easily spend that much chartering a mid-size bizjet on that route.

    Maintenance is an interesting expense to look at. I flew for a while with one of the founders of Jet Blue, and he told me that the secret to making that airline (and Southwest, I guess) work is having only one type of airplane in the fleet. It allows greater utilization of the pilots, reduces training requirements for crews and maintenance personnel, and requires a smaller variety of spares to be carried by the airline.

    He predicted lower profit for Jet Blue since they departed from the single-aircraft model.

  • 3 Colin Summers // Jan 2, 2007 at 4:05 am

    You don’t mention the freight hauled on the trip. You’d need trucks on the ground, too.

  • 4 GC // Jan 2, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    CASM is published in the airline’s quarterly earnings statements, among other places.

    Freight was one of the items I couldn’t figure, as we don’t know exactly what is on the airplane in terms of revenue dollars. Usually, our freight is limited to small point-to-point shipments, usually time-sensitive items that need to go between two cities served by our airline. For that reason, our freight revenue isn’t nearly what other airlines might be. We don’t do any ground-shipping, so trucks aren’t required.

  • 5 Gina // Jan 3, 2007 at 4:48 am

    Happy New Year GC and family! I hope the scheduling gurus were kind to you and you had some time at home over the holidays. My FO friend is currently inbetween two 4 dayers with two days of training thrown in the mix just to keep things interesting. Poor guy; but he says he’s having a great time (either that or exhaustion has set in).

    Guess who has an interview with your airline next week…that would be me! I’m excited about the prospects as it could be my ticket out of LA eventually (literally and figuratively). I’m still not giving up on my Kings though.

  • 6 DailyAviator // Jan 8, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    You forgot a huge expense on the driving. If you’ve got a $20k car, and it has a lifetime of 100k miles, then that’s $0.20 / mile. Times 2650 miles, thats $530 of amortization. Times 35 cars, thats $18,550. That’s almost the cost of the flight, and it doesn’t count fuel, food, lodging or time.

    I don’t think you’d manage to arrange 4 people who wanted to go that far together, so figure just two people per car, and that’s $37,100

  • 7 Cessna 172 // Jan 11, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Love your math work. Keep up the great airplane blog. Thanks.

  • 8 Flygirl // Mar 28, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Great post…so this is what you guys are really doing up front on those long hauls! ;)

  • 9 Anonymous // Nov 1, 2007 at 6:39 am

    So can i assume that if the plane was full (137 passengers), that the MPG per customer was 29.5 miles per gallon? Not even accounting for the crew/cargo etc.?

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