Friday, June 8, 2012

US Air Travel Plateau

Yesterday, I had a bad air-travel day (one of several lately on work trips) which led me to wonder about all the peak-oil related predictions of the demise of air travel.  The above shows the data for total US domestic passenger revenue-miles.  The obvious features seem to be:
  • Strong growth in the 1990s
  • A sharp disruption as a result of 9/11
  • Even stronger rebound growth in the early 2000s
  • An abrupt leveling off in 2005 with the onset of the plateau in oil production
  • A decline with the great recession
  • Weak growth since the end of the recession
I think this is more or less exactly what a peak oil moderate would have predicted.  Air travel is an interesting case in that there's no way it's demand limited.  Cars, for example, one might make a somewhat plausible case that further American demand for more vehicle-miles-traveled was going to be limited by already high car ownership and congestion and inability to fit more roads and parking into already crowded cities.  However, it seems clear that, unconstrained by costs, many Americans would be jetting around every weekend for fun.

But jet travel is also something that does and will always depend on liquid fuel, so it is likely that constraints in the liquid fuel supply will directly show through into constraints in jet travel.

I would expect air travel to continue for a long time to come, but I also expect it to gradually become more expensive and less accessible to the bulk of the population.


Kweksma said...


I think that there is a huge amount of recreational flying (holiday travel) that will be whiped out when people start making decisions on the spending of their dwindling discretionairy income.

Personally I can't wait for charter airways and charter airports to go kaput of this, it's long overdue. Here in Holland they are located near the most beautiful national parks, and it is very anoying for a peakoiler to be confronted with an (air)bus every 5 minutes, full of people on their way to or from Ibiza, knowing that all that fuel being burnt in the noisy engines isn't even taxed!
(and the people on board probably can't even point out on a map where they are going to)

Flying has become way too cheap for way too many people, it's time for a reality check. Good news that it is apparently starting to happen

Lars-Eric Bjerke said...


Kjell Aleklett has a summary of the work by his group on peak aviation. The increase in fuel efficiency by the aviation industry is impressive by can not compensate for higher fuel costs. As an average about 30 % of theír total costs is fuel.

trojanhorse said...

Hi Stuart,

Thatès Okay for the USA but it looks like China isn't a P.O. beliver moderate or otherwise, lol.

"By 2013, visitation from China to the U.S. is expected to grow 61% over 2008 arrivals — rising from 493,000 in 2008 to a forecasted 795,000 in 2013. (Source: IVIS China Summary, Office of Travel and Tourism Industries)"

Susan Kraemer said...

I see something quite different starting in 2006

Strong growth in the 1990s
A sharp disruption as a result of 9/11
Even stronger rebound growth in the early 2000s

but then:

2006 Abrupt leveling off after seeing Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, following 2005's Katrina which primed Americans to receive the message about climate change.
2007 Forgot again
2008 A decline with the great recession
2010 Only really necessary trips
2012 Publicity about the EU carbon tax reminds Americans to restrict their flying

Stuart Staniford said...

Susan: I wish! I'm sceptical that enough American's are willing to modify their lifestyle voluntarily (absent price signals) for concern about climate change to impact the stats much.

I wonder if there are any stats available about carbon offset purchases - if your story were correct, there ought to be corresponding rises in offset purchases in 2006 and 2010-2012.

Susan Kraemer said...

Most American airlines have been adding the carbon charge on to ticket prices since January when the tally began, is my understanding: it is about $3 extra per passenger to Europe from the U.S. Airlines have to turn over the fees for 2012 at the beginning of 2013.

Stephen B. said...

While I also think air travel will continue in diminished numbers for sometime to come, availability of decent itineraries will become ever more an issue as schedules, airports, and routes get ever further cut back even for those still able to pay in a way similar to what happened to intercity rail. In the case of air travel, I suppose the very wealthy will be able to support their own plane or do the charter - timeshare thing that is fairly common amongst corporate users now, especially since airways don't require physical maintenance like a rail line does. Still, excepting these wealthy, the easy availability of air will dry up. We've already seen regional airports lose airline tenants around New England and this is just the start. It will be possible to fly NYC to LAX for a good while to come, Manchester, NH to Memphis (or even Boston to Memphis) not so much.

Nick G said...

I'd say the death of flying is greatly exaggerated.

First, I don't think we'll see $200 oil for 50 years (weasel words: adjusted for inflation and exchange rates, and barring a long-term blockage of exports from the Persian Gulf). That means that flying costs won't go up by more than 30% (the existing share of aviation fuel costs), which isn't enough to make a big difference.

2nd, aviation can become 3x more efficient and fuel synthesized from renewable power, seawater and atmospheric carbon won't cost more than 3x as much as jet fuel today. see

gregory said...

air travel plateau ... it's a good thing .. to much disturbance to the atmosphere, dilution of cultures, wasted energies of many kinds ....