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Tankering fuel: the case for and against

On Monday evening, the BBC Panorama TV programme debated whether flying could become environmentally friendly. Given the myriad of climate-change campaigners that are employed by the broadcasting company and the bias that inevitably results, it was always going to be a stitch-up that would make air travel look bad.

Left: Refuelling can be an expensive business (Curimedia)

One aspect of modern airline operations that is not readily observed by the travelling public came in for particular scrutiny during the programme: tankering. Tankering is discussed in some detail in The Aviation Oracle’s forthcoming book So you want to start an airline. However, simplistically it is the practice of loading more fuel onto an aeroplane than is needed solely for its next trip - fuel that may be used during a later flight. Since energy is always consumed to move mass, it follows that a typical airliner will burn more fuel to move any excess fuel it carries. On average, an airliner will consume around 4% of any excess fuel it carries every hour, just to carry the fuel. So, loading a tonne (1,000kg) of excess fuel means burning an extra 40kg just humping it around. And using additional fuel increases carbon emissions, which was the gist of what the TV programme was getting so excitable about.

Accusations that the aviation industry isn’t taking climate change seriously abounded during the programme (the presenter suggested that if it was taking things seriously, tankering would be outlawed), and the print media also picked up on the story.

Meanwhile, in other shock news (conveniently not touched on at all by Panorama):

  • Buses have been found to be leaving depots in the morning full of fuel, rather than just carrying what is needed for the first trip and then being refilled during the day. This practice is widespread and results in increased emissions and pollution.

  • Motorists have been seen to fill up their tanks with cheap fuel even if they only make short journeys, and even go out of their way (drive extra miles) to buy at the lowest prices. These practices are also widespread and result in increased emissions and pollution

Seriously though, the harsh reality is that when ANY vehicle carries excess weight it consumes additional fuel and therefore pollutes more. UK motoring organisations even ran a campaign a while ago recommending we remove unnecessary junk from the boots of our cars, because dragging excess weight around increases fuel consumption - and maybe you’ve got the idea now, that in turn increases emissions. So, carrying more fuel than is needed for just the next trip produces more CO2 emissions whether it be a car, a train, a bus, a bicycle or even an aeroplane. Unfortunately, the eco