It’s often said that an airline’s operating costs are the main reason so many go out of business. So how much does it cost to fly a commercial plane?
The cost to fly a commercial airplane varies wildly depending on factors like aircraft type, aircraft age and fuel costs (among others). Hourly operational costs vary from a little more than $1,500 per hour to a little over $9,000 per hour.
Through my personal experience as a pilot, I’m well versed in the different costs that face most aircraft operators, and how these flight costs combine to form the eventual ticket price the flying public pay.
Commercial Plane Costs: A Breakdown
For commercial planes, as with all types of aircraft, costs can be broken down into two main types: fixed costs and variable costs.
What makes up these costs, however, are somewhat weird when it comes to commercial aircraft, as a cost that might be fixed on other aircraft types can be both fixed and variable for airlines, as they increase as fleet size (and thus flights) increase. These are marked with an (*).
Simply put, fixed costs are operating costs that remain the same no matter how much an airline does (or doesn’t) use their aircraft. Examples of these include:
- Aircraft acquisition/leasing payments(*)
- Hangar space(*)
- Crew/Maintenance management software(s)
- Flight charts
- Aircraft insurance(*)
- Overnight fees (*)
- Crew Salaries (*)
- Aircraft registration fees(*)
By contrast, variable costs are costs that change the more or less an airline operates their aircraft. Examples of these include:
- Fuel costs
- Maintenance costs
- Landing fees
- Other airport fees (eg. aircraft deicing)
- Aircraft cleaning
- Passenger fees
What Affects A Commercial Aircraft’s Cost?
There are several factors that affect how much it costs to operate a commercial aircraft. These include:
Speed & Fuel Economy
In flight, pilots can choose to fly at a range of speeds. Something we’re told as early as our first flight is that the faster you go, generally speaking, the more fuel you will burn. And this makes sense, fuel is what powers the engine, so if the engine has to work harder, it will need more fuel to power it.
To that end, pilots rarely fly their aircraft at the maximum speed. Instead, they generally fly at what’s known as “cruise speed” which is slightly slower than the max speed, but reduces fuel burn to extend range.
Some aircraft even have what’s called an “eco cruise” - or an even more fuel efficient speed which itself is slightly slower than its cruise speed.
Depending on which of the three speeds the pilot chooses to use, will determine how much fuel is consumed during the flight; the more fuel consumed, the higher the operational costs for that commercial airplane will be.
Type of Airline
Almost all major airlines can be divided into one of two categories: Legacy carriers (also known as full service carriers) like British Airways and American Airlines and low cost airlines like Southwest, Spirit and Ryanair.
Whilst you might not expect it to, the type of airline can play a huge role in costs; and probably not in the way you might think.
Though it is possible for this not to be the case, legacy carriers tend to have higher average flight costs than their low cost competitors. This is mainly down to two reasons: crew salaries and fleet makeup.
Low cost carriers tend to use younger crew to man their flights. As these crews are generally less experienced, their salaries tend to be far lower, which then means lower operational costs.
Similarly, low cost carriers tend to only operate one aircraft type. Take Southwest for example, they only operate the Boeing 737. By contrast, competitors like American Airlines operate many different types, from 737s to A320s to 787s and so on.
Only using a single type reduces costs as it improves efficiency. Mechanics only need to be familiar with one aircraft type rather than several, meaning they can do routine maintenance far quicker. Parts can be ordered in bulk, thus getting lower prices, and all the GSE can be the same across all their operations, again, allowing them to get a better deal on pricing.
Fuel is the major expense of literally every airline. Most modern jet airliners use either Jet A or Jet A-1, both of which are kerosene-type fuels, and as such, derived from crude oil.
As one of the world’s most important natural resources, the price of crude oil is always relatively high. What’s more is that its price is also incredibly volatile, and is prone to massive increases and/or decreases in a matter of minutes.
Whilst almost all airlines do something called “fuel hedging” where they buy far more fuel than they need when prices are low, in anticipation of them getting more expensive (because the price of crude oil has increased), this isn’t 100% effective.
Sometimes the price continues going down, meaning that in effect, they are paying more for fuel than they’d otherwise be. Other times, they blow through the huge amount of fuel they’ve purchased and the price of oil has continued to go up.
Though there are differing estimates out there, most generally agree that fuel costs account for at least 50% of total airline costs, so any increase in the price of oil is likely to seriously increase the cost of the flight for the airline, which they then pass on to travelers in the form of higher ticket prices.
When I was doing my flight training many years ago, my flight instructor told me: “Airports are like people; some are cheap, others will cost you an arm and a leg”. And this is something the airline industry knows all too well.
Due to their sheer popularity, huge hubs like New York JFK or London Heathrow have huge landing and airport fees. After all, they know that airlines will pay pretty much whatever they demand.
By contrast, smaller airports serving similar geographical areas like Newark and Gatwick, charge far less, as they know more airlines will want to land at their larger neighbors.
If you look closely, a growing number of airlines are choosing to go to these smaller, cheaper airports. And this move is almost wholly a financial one: lower landing/airport fees, even by only a few dollars per flight, adds up.
This then reduces the overall cost to operate a commercial plane for an airline.
There’s no denying that aircraft are expensive machines. Even the cheapest airliners can cost several million dollars. But for larger, more popular aircraft like the Boeing 737-800, it comes with a price tag of a staggering $82 million.
But this is something of a misnomer. You see, airlines rarely buy one aircraft at a time and instead place bulk orders of maybe 10, 20 or even 50 aircraft at one time
What this does is give them access to what economists like to call economies of scale. As they represent such a huge order value, aircraft manufacturers are likely to give airlines something of a discount.
For example, an airline buying 10 Boeing 737-800 jets might only pay $80 million per jet, whilst an airline buying 20 737-800 jets might pay $78 million or less per jet.
This translates to lower operating costs in the form of lower monthly payments.
You see, not even the largest airlines have several billion dollars to purchase 20 or more aircraft, so they borrow the money from companies like General Aviation Capital, which specialize in aircraft financing deals, to pay for the aircraft. They then pay back this loan each month.
The lower the amount the airlines pay for the aircraft, the less they have to pay off (including interest), which makes the overall operating costs lower.
If you look at the fleets of most reasonably sized airlines (of all sizes and types), you’ll notice how the average age of their aircraft sits in the low-to-mid teens. Most pilots and airlines call this the “sweet spot”.
And they say this for two reasons.
First, old aircraft tend to be less fuel efficient than new aircraft. Every year, plane makers like Airbus and Boeing make their aircraft one or two percent more efficient. Whilst this might not sound like a lot, this is huge for airlines, and explains why when a new variant of their favorite airliner is released, they all rush to place orders for it.
Second, old aircraft require much more maintenance than their newer counterparts. The parts are older, and thus break more often, or at least, require more attention during any kind of maintenance.
As commercial planes only earn money when they’re in the sky carrying fare-paying passengers, every second they spend in the hangar having work done to them, or waiting for a part to arrive, the more they cost an airline in two ways. Primarily, this is through the lost revenue from the flights they are unable to perform, in addition to the cost of the part/maintenance itself.
How Much Does It Cost To Fly A Commercial Aircraft?
All this considered, most commercial airplanes fall into one of four categories, which commercial airlines ultimately used as a guideline to how much they should cost:
The smallest of the four commercial aircraft categories, commuter aircraft are small aircraft that can generally carry up to 19 passengers per flight. They are generally used for short-haul connecting flights, often between a small airport and a large one.
Unlike the other three commercial aircraft categories, most commuter aircraft are powered by two turboprop engines, rather than two (or more) jet engines, and thus, consume less fuel per mile flown. Currently, they fly cycles of about 6.2 hours per day.
To comply with federal regulations, they still require two pilots, but often do not have a flight attendant and certain amenities such as in-flight toilets. This reduces crew and other expenses, but has a slightly higher cost per seat mile as a result of two crew members.
Particularly in the US, commuter aircraft operations are performed by the major airline whose logo is emblazoned on the side. Instead, they are operated by a smaller commuter airline who are contracted by major airlines like United or Delta.
This reduces overall for the large airline, and allows them to report a much larger profit (or a shallower loss), but the owner of the commuter aircraft may still make a profit.
On average, however, a commuter aircraft costs on average $1,823 per flight hour to operate.
Popular commuter aircraft include:
- De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter
- Beechcraft 1900
- Let L-410 Turbolet
Slightly larger than commuter aircraft, regional airliners are generally jet powered (though a few turboprops like the Bombardier Q400/Dash 8 and ATR 42/72 are still popular) and carry more than 20 passengers, but less than 100.
Their range is typically larger (by around 50%) and are often used on similar routes to commuter aircraft, albeit ones that are significantly more popular.
Unlike their commuter counterparts, regional planes generally have at least one flight attendant (often two), which increases crew costs, but thanks to it having more seats and more fuel efficient engines, lower operational costs. Currently, they fly cycles of about 9.4 hours per day.
In the US, regional planes are the sorts of aircraft that are used to fly short-haul interstate routes, such as up and down the East/West Coast or on a select few routes from large coastal population centers to nearby large population centers in the Midwest.
In Europe and much of the rest of the world, these airplanes are used on short-haul international routes, such as London to Paris or Madrid to Lisbon. Here, they are sometimes known as “city hoppers” due to this role.
Regional planes are sometimes broken down into two subcategories - small and large regional planes - based on their capacity. Those with a capacity of less than 70 are considered “small” regional planes, whilst those with more than 70 are considered “large” regional planes.
On average, a small regional aircraft has an operational cost of $1,417 per flight hour, whilst a large regional aircraft has an operational cost of $1,598 per flight hour. Combined, this gives regional aircraft as a whole an average hourly operational cost of $1,507.5.
Popular regional aircraft include:
- Embraer E-Jet family
- Bombardier CRJ family
- ATR 42/72 (turboprop)
Narrow Body Aircraft
By far the most popular commercial planes, narrow body aircraft are larger than their regional counterparts. Any aircraft with a single aisle (regardless of seat configuration) that carries more than 100 passengers is generally considered a narrow body aircraft.
On average, they tend to have seats for about 175 passengers, meaning they require three or four flight attendants (current FAA guidelines state one flight attendant per 50 seats), whilst still maintaining two flight crew.
They typically fly cycles of about 11.4 hours per day and generally find themselves on high-traffic transcontinental flights such as New York City, NY to Dallas, TX in the US, or London to Istanbul in Europe.
Because of their much larger size and propensity to be used on longer-haul routes (meaning it carries a lot more luggage and/or cargo and thus weighs more) requires the use of more fuel consuming engines. This pushes up operating costs and makes them more expensive to operate per hour than smaller regional aircraft.
Again, however, the increase in the number of seats actually makes these planes cheaper for airlines on a cost per seat basis. Currently, a narrow body aircraft costs on average $2,963 per hour to operate when flown at its standard cycle rate.
Popular narrow body aircraft include:
- Boeing 737 family
- Airbus A320 family
Wide Body Aircraft
Able to carry as many as 800 passengers per flight, wide body aircraft were originally developed to cope with the huge increase in demand for air travel. Unlike the other categories of airliners, wide body aircraft are categorized as such if they have twin aisles (regardless of seating configuration), regardless of how many passengers they can carry.
Originally, wide body aircraft were quadjets, however, since the 1990s, most new wide bodies have been twinjets, a fact that has significantly reduced the operational costs for this category down from an estimated $30,000 per hour in the mid-1980s to an average of $9,048 per hour today.
Because of their huge passenger counts, wide body aircraft have the largest total costs of the four categories of commercial airplanes in terms of things like fuel. However, their huge size also restricts the number of airports they can land at (as they require a much longer runway) and means that airport services like cleaning, loading, deicing and refueling take much longer, hence higher airport fees.
On particularly long flights, such as London to Sydney (presently the world’s longest flight), wide body jets require two sets of crews - four pilots and 21 flight attendants - to comply with workplace and FAA regulations. This actually gives wide body jets a higher cost per seat, though this is decreasing thanks to the introduction of more efficient and technologically advanced twin jet wide bodies.
Popular wide body aircraft include:
- Boeing 747
- Airbus A380
- Boeing 787
- Airbus A350