Fuel facts show VAFFC project not justified

In brief, the facts about fuel needs provided by the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation are suspect. Most significantly, they assume that a hypothetical increase in passengers over the next fifteen years would require a proportional increase in fuel. However, since the airline industry is rapidly becoming more fuel-efficient, there is likely to be an efficiency gain that offsets any gain in passengers from the standpoint of fuel needs. The details make that more evident.

Feb. 16 update: The comment that April Reeves has added at the end of this article provides valuable complementary perspectives.

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Analysis of the “Project Justification” fuel figures

YVR’s future fuel consumption is charted in the “Project Justification” in the Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project Description (January 2009, page 5). It looks good at first glance but fishy on further thought.  We’ll analyze it using the period from 1992 on because there are official YVR statistics from that year that we will bring in later.

That “Project Justification” chart (shown above) first plots the average daily litres of aviation fuel. Below that, the chart plots the average daily passengers. It shows these increases from 1992 to 2027:

  • Daily fuel used up from 2.8 million litres to 8.2 million
  • Daily passengers up from 28 thousand to 87 thousand

Just looking at those figures, we can see that the fuel use per passenger goes down only slightly. In 1992 it was obviously 100 litres, and apparently in 2027 it will still be close to that at 94 litres. Airline fuel efficiency has improved tremendously since 1992, and reliable sources show that it will improve at an even faster rate in the coming years, so a total reduction in fuel use per passenger of only 6% in 35 years seems incredibly poor. (From what I read about improved fuel efficiency, it would sound about right if the VAFFC cart were implying a fuel reduction of 60% instead of the tiny 6%.)

Fortunately, the Vancouver International Airport, YVR, does a great job of providing helpful statistics online. I searched them for a clue, perhaps a mitigating factor such as a massive increase in length of average flight. I found the excellent “YVR Passengers (Enplaned + Deplaned) 1992-2011” table that begins as shown below.

If you have super-sharp eyesight, the first thing you may notice from the partial YVR table is that the passenger numbers in the VAFFC Project Justification chart seem a bit inflated, but that doesn’t matter much. (Note: Since it is hard to read in this small size, I suggest that you open the table  in a new window.)

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Fuel efficiency

The YVR statistics in the table show that there has not been a large increase in international flights (only up from 20% of the flights in 1992 to a high point of 24% in 2005, with a slight decline since then), so flight distance doesn’t appear to be much of a factor. Putting it all together, I get the impression from the “Project Justification” chart that the fuel efficiency in 2027 is projected to be only slightly better in 2027 than it was 35 years earlier in 1992.

That makes no sense at all. The general sense I get from web searching is that jet fuel economy has improved a great deal since 1992, as futurist Dr. Patrick Dixon explains here. Looking for the most expert source, I found this goal in NASA’S Green Aviation: A Better Way to Treat the Planet (c. 2010):

In keeping with that goal, this 2010 video describes how Airbus is increasing the efficiency of one of its popular A320 planes with a new engine that is 15% more efficient.

From the YVR table, we also get a better sense that the number of passengers remained essentially the same in the six-year 2006–2011 period. That’s a difference from the project chart, which gives the impression that the number of passengers went up a fair amount.

Actually, the average annual increase in passengers in that period was 0.1%.  We can see from the table that YVR had 17,032,742 passengers in 2011. If the trend continues until 2027, the daily average that year will be well under 48 thousand a day. That is far fewer than the Project Justification chart projection of up to 87 thousand a day.

Even if YVR breaks out of its slump and starts fuelling more jets, it would seem likely that the rapid progress in fuel efficiency, especially with the much more efficient engines, will keep the YVR fuel needs from escalating.

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A clincher re questionable facts

A clincher for me in distrusting the fuel statistics was statistics in the Oil Spill Emergency Plan of January 2012 that supplements the Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project Description. Here’s an excerpt:

On the positive side, the two figures are in agreement: 80,000 barrels of jet fuel is roughly equal to 12,800 cubic metres. Since a cubic metre is 1,000 litres, the volume that the terminal processes could be expressed as 12.8 million litres per month. However, we know from the chart in the project description (page 5) that the current need is 5 million litres per day, which would be 150 million litres per month.

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Conclusion

The statistics from VAFFC suit their purpose of giving the impression of a need that can’t be met without a radically different fuel delivery approach. However, they assume that YVR airlines are making no progress in fuel efficiency even though there is rapid progress in fuel efficiency in the rest of the airline industry. There are really only two possibilities:

  • The increased fuel delivery capacity is not needed.
  • The VAFFC airlines are being irresponsibly lax in fuel efficiency progress.

Either way, the proposal as submitted to Environmental Assessment Office is NOT justified.

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Notes:

(1) The fuel use per passenger departing on flights from YVR would be twice the amount implied on the VAFFC chart, since the chart gives the fuel use for departing flights but the combined total of passengers departing and arriving.

(2) It is reasonable that the number of passengers shown on the VAFFC chart is even higher than that the total in the YVR table because VAFFC could be including passengers on flights that refuel here.

(3) Even though VAFFC is trying to make the fuel need seem as large as possible in order to be persuasive, it is a concern that the possibility of fuel conservation as part of the solution is so conspicuously absent from VAFFC’s expressed thinking.

Read other articles on this blog on this topic. Also visit the VAPOR website.

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1 Comment »

  1. 1

    My husband worked at YVR for 25 years. The airline industry is the first to feel any recession and the last to recover. There is still a skeleton crew at YVR. If you really want to get a good idea of the industry’s future, talk to those that work there. That’s where you’ll find the real story of what YVR’s future looks like. It’s not rosy.

    Another stat you might want to throw back at them: it was only a few years ago that they changed the ruling for re-gassing planes. You were unable to put the old gas back into them for fear of contamination (after maintenance). Now they have gas cleaners, so the fuel is returned to the plane. This is saving millions of gallons of gas and dollars….

    We have now moved from Richmond to Alberta, and are now privy of hundreds of millions of miles of oil pipelines under our feet, including one big one on our 80 acres. While the risk of breakage is there, it’s nothing even close to the risk of tankers and trucks transporting it. The second you put oil into anything that moves (ship, train, truck) you increase your risk 1000x. So as far as running it through the ground, after standing on underground lines and speaking with those NOT in the oil industry about the safety, I’m changing my perspective.

    However, a pipeline in Richmond means it has to come via ship, and THAT is what is not acceptable under any circumstance.

    There’s an old saying “Keep your eye on the ball”. While you need all the stats and numbers you can get to win this, the “ball” is a much larger picture.


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