The Cost of Flying

Airbus A320

Flying is expensive, really expensive, but only kinda, and it's only partially the airlines' fault.

Using a hypothetical flight of 1h with an Airbus 320 filled with 154 passengers, this article analyses the costs of a flight from New York to Washington DC. This is just an illustrative example - figures will very according to other routes, aircraft and countries. It does make for an interesting analysis though.

Descriptionper Paxper HourPercentage
Fees & Taxes 29.10 4,481 41.6%
Aircraft 28.25 4,351 40.4%
Company 11.50 1,771 16.4%
Miscellaneous 1.15 177 1.6%

It is interesting to note that the largest portion of the costs goes toward fees and taxes and not operating the actual aircraft. This is in part due to the new security measures introduced after 2001. Only the second largest group is for operating the aircraft. The next group caters for  company operations. There is also a miscellaneous group which accounts for other small things not included in the calculation.

The calculation comes up with an hourly cost of $10,780 for a 1h flight sector in the the US, or about $70 per person (assuming a full aircraft, etc). Real life figures may be higher. Smaller aircraft will be more expensive. Longer flights will only be marginally cheaper per flight hour, especially if it is an international flight as there are a lot of additional taxes, which are not applicable for local flights in the US.

Cost Reductions

How to reduce these costs? It boils down to an inverse function of (perceived) safety vs. costs. Aircraft designs have become more efficient over the years. However, the direct operating costs are only a very small percentage therefore only and make up a small saving compared to the whole. The large chunks where savings can be made are aircraft costs, taxes and to a lesser degree the company operations. The bulk of the aircraft costs go into maintenance and type certification programmes. Type certified aircraft are by a large factor more expensive than non type certified ones. This reflects the cost of building an aircraft to- and certifying against those standards. Yes - commercially operated aircraft need to be type certified.

Taxes have increased over the years (especially since 2001). There may be some some savings to be made by critically looking at which airport, air traffic and auxiliary services are really required, what they cost and which of these services are not quite so essential. Automation will offer some increased efficiencies, but they wont necessarily be to the consumer's benefit. Over the years the aviation companies have been required to comply with an increasing number of regulations, which results in additional paperwork, increasing the cost of their operations.

Flying is one of the safest (if not the safest) mode of transport. A fair assessment would have to compare accidents, injuries or fatalities per passenger kilometer traveled. If anyone has figures to this effect, I would be very interested to present them here.

But: Aviation is a very emotional subject, especially in relation to fatal accidents and loss of life. Regulators and politicians (who are dependent on  your votes) often overreact in response to fatal aviation accidents, especially if the incident involves a large airliner. This overreacting results in more regulations (to prevent that one in a million situation) and ultimately increased costs for the operators, aircraft manufacturers and airports. If only a small part of aviation regulations were applied to road transport, there would probably be a large reduction in accidents - more so than in aviation. If this is true, then the efforts and monies would be better invested in making road transportation safer. But aviation is an emotionally charged subject and politicians need to be seen to doing the right thing. Some reforms could probably be made to sensibly decrease some maintenance and certification requirements, which would result in lower aircraft purchase and maintenance costs. New aircraft have to comply to some very rigorous testing procedures, which older designs that are still in production do not (grandfathers rights). Of course any attempt to reduce aviation fees & taxes would result in flaring emotions from all those making a living from those funds. Safety is normally the number one argument of why this is a bad idea and the discussion quickly becomes political. Technically aircraft no longer require a crew, it's mostly the regulations that require them...


One might argue that the all technical saving have been made in the aviation industry, but once the aviation sector has fully evolved into the computing age, we may see lots of changes and regulations will have to adapt with them. Some of these changes may help to further decrease the costs of flying. To be fair it should be mentioned, that flying has become made more affordable, accessible and safe over the past decades.


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