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Sat, May 03, 2008

Airlines Slowing Down To Conserve Fuel

Time Cost Minimal... But Savings Can Add Up

If it seems as though airline flights are taking even longer than they used to, well... that perception may not be entirely due to shoddy service and cramped seats. Several airlines -- among them JetBlue, Southwest, and Northwest -- have started slowing their planes down in flight, in order to save precious fuel.

Southwest started flying about 10 knots slower than usual two months ago, according to The Associated Press. JetBlue started trimming back two years ago, with most other airlines falling somewhere in between.

While the time difference is negligible on a per-flight basis -- a Northwest flight from Minneapolis to Hawaii now takes about two minutes longer than it used to -- the savings are substantial. Northwest estimates it will save $600,000 a year in fuel on that route alone.

JetBlue pegs the savings throughout its network at about $13.6 million per year.

United Airlines -- which pays nearly $1 more per gallon of Jet-A than Southwest does, thanks to the latter's fuel-hedging policies -- relies on flight planning software to determine the optimal speed and altitude for each flight. That software should save the airline $20 million a year, according to spokesperson Megan McCarthy.

"What we're doing is flying at a more consistent speed to save fuel," McCarthy said. Of course, it's seldom possible to fly a truly optimized route from point A to B -- and when you factor in time to taxi, ATC vectors and good old Mother Nature, the savings may be less.

One airline says it's not utilizing the slow-down method, at least not as policy.

"We have the flying schedule to protect," said American Airlines spokesman John Hotard. Instead of deliberately flying slower, Hotard said American is relying on the addition of winglets to its Boeing 737s and 757s to cut fuel usage, as well as other more down-to-earth methods like keeping its planes plugged into ground power as long as possible.

Airline consultant Bob Mann notes slowing flights down results in other, ancillary costs as well. Increased flight time over the life of the airframe adds to maintenance costs, and longer hours for flight crews and cabin personnel.

"Everything's a tradeoff," he said.

FMI: www.southwest.com, www.nwa.com, www.united.com, www.jetblue.com, www.aa.com

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