How much does an airliner cost per flying hour?

How much does an airliner cost per flying hour? Let’s review the airline costs per flight. At a macro level, aircraft operating costs include both flight and ground costs associated with the operation of an aircraft, such as fuel, crew salaries and training, landing fees, ground handling, parking, gate leases, and maintenance, just to name some of the big expenses. Every airline has economists whose sole preoccupation is trying to optimize and balance all of this stuff against available routes, likely demand, fleet mix etc. (I’m given to understand they use literally gallons of Eye of Newt every day.)

How Much Does An Airliner Cost Per Flying Hour?

The Eurocontrol Business Case Team published a guide for cost-benefit analyses a few years back that you might find interesting if you want to dig into (or geek out on) this kind of granularity: Standard Inputs for EUROCONTROL Cost-Benefit Analyses.

There is a tremendous amount of variability in any such figures. More engines (usually) means more fuel burn per hour; fuel prices fluctuate on a daily basis; newer engines are more fuel-efficient than older engines, etc. Also, different authorities will occasionally come to blows on such subjects as to whether to base hourly costs on a typical flight profile for the type of aircraft in question (lots of takeoffs and landings, or one takeoff followed by twelve hours of droning along followed by a descent, approach and landing).

Crews or dispatchers planning fuel loads have to consult performance charts for the planned flying time, add in start, taxi and takeoff (STTO) fuel — which can vary widely based on types of aircraft and typical ground time from one airport to another) — and then add more fuel based on where available alternates might be. It can cost a fair amount to lug around a lot of fuel you probably won’t need, but it’s a lot more embarrassing, bordering on fatal, not to have it when it’s needed (Spicejet B738 at Delhi, Jaipur and Delhi on Jan 5th 2014, Air India’s runway excursion forces landing below weather minima and final fuel reserve).

The A380 burns a lot of fuel considering its weight and four-engine configuration, but airlines are dropping the giant plane even in a time of low-fuel costs. In 2017, Singapore Airlines retired several of the craft. In 2016, Qantas canceled an order for eight, and even home team Air France dropped two planes from an order of 12. The A380 is essentially on deathwatch, with production set to drop to below one per month if new orders don’t arrive. Even the plane’s signature sweeping staircase may face the budget-cutters’ ax.

airline costs per flight

Why are airlines dropping the A380 even when fuel is cheap? Operating costs. Estimates are that operating A380s costs between $26,000 and $29,000 per hour. By contrast, an average flight on an American Airlines 737-800, which can hold 160-175 passengers and has a range of about 2,900 miles, costs $2,180 per hour.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 29: A new American Airlines 737-800 aircraft. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty... [+] Images)

CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 29: A new American Airlines 737-800 aircraft. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty… [+]

Some may say this is comparing apples and oranges. The A380 is designed for very-long-haul routes and the 737 and Airbus A320 families are short-haul planes.

While this is true, how many of us have a need or desire to fly the longest A380-800 route in the world, from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to Auckland, New Zealand, on Emirates? The 8,824-mile journey takes 17 hours 15 minutes each way. I found an economy seat on Orbitz, for Jan. 10-Jan. 18, 2018, for $1,922. (For mileage nuts and masochists, here’s a list of the world’s longest flights.)

The A380 is clearly becoming a niche aircraft. Many airports can’t handle it or its two exit gateways, and those that can experience flash mobs at boarding and customs. And when an Air France A380 had an engine explosion and made an emergency landing in Labrador, Air France had to send two planes to pick up the 497 passengers. One of the flights went straight to Los Angeles while the second flew to Atlanta, which necessitated putting the LA-bound passengers on additional aircraft.

Smaller planes have smaller headaches; if an Airbus 319 (which has a range of 3,700 miles) were taken out of service, only about 160 passengers would have to be accommodated.

The business case for the jumbo jets has been shattered, with them replaced by smaller, more efficient and easier to fill twin-jet aircraft like the Airbus A320 family and the Boeing 737. The latest iteration, the 737 Max 7, can carry 172 passengers 3,800 miles, with fuel-efficient winglets. It’s no wonder that these efficient planes are the workhorses of the low-fare (like Southwest, which flies only 737s) and ultra-low-cost carriers (like Spirit and WOW), which have been packing in passengers across the U.S. and Europe.

Crammed single-aisle jets lack the panache of piano bars and sweeping staircases. But to airline investors, they look beautiful.

Back in 2015, AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) posted an article that aimed to estimate operating costs for various aircraft. In our case, it helps compare aircraft against each other in a general sense. AOPA gives the following explanation for what these numbers include:

“These are variable costs and include fuel, maintenance (parts and labor), engine reserves, auxiliary power units if applicable, and miscellaneous expenses to include crew travel, catering and cabin supplies, landing and parking fees—all boiled down to a single number.”

So, keep in mind that what you see here doesn’t include actual debt service on the aircraft itself.

cost per flight hour calculation

Hourly costs of operation:

Cirrus Vision SF50:                         661.53

Embraer Phenom 100E:              1,151.84

Embraer Phenom 300:                 1,757.53

Cessna Citation CJ4:                   1,970.13

Bombardier Learjet 70:                2,166.11

Cessna Citation Sovereign:         2,699.38

Dassault Falcon 2000LXS:          3,089.71

Embraer Legacy 500:                   3,179.78

Bombardier Challenger 850         3,544.71

Embraer Legacy 600:                   3,739.73

Citation X+:                                  4,098.69

Gulfstream G550:                         4,731.05

Gulfstream G650:                         4,843.16

Gulfstream G650ER:                    4,847.91

Bombardier Global 6000:             5,149.70

Boeing BBJ 3:                              7,396.29

Airbus ACJ320:                             7,964.69

Boeing 747SP:                             19,944.07

Airbus A380:                                29,000.00

All operating costs we’ve listed are to be taken with a grain of salt. The cost varies significantly based on many factors. In both charter and private ownership, managers are always on the phone with service providers, negotiating the best rates possible. Maintenance and catering overbilling are common and must be painstakingly audited and researched. 

Therein lies a critical difference between paying for chartered jets and owning a jet. Charter companies only need to compete with each other. Savings they uncover rarely translate to the customer; instead they add profit margins. Companies and individuals that privately own and operate jets generally have Flight Department Managers or Chief Pilots who take a direct approach to cost mitigation, seeking the lowest wholesale cost on everything possible. Every cent they save stays in-house and benefits the owner. 

Just for comparison, here are some rough numbers of what it costs to charter an aircraft on an hourly basis, but keep in mind, these figures don’t include a huge number of potential add-ons and additional incurred costs for a charter flight, as we discussed before, nor repositioning or empty return legs. Stratosjets.com lists a range of per hour costs based on the size and capability of the airframe needed for the charter. They read as follows:

Very light jet: $2,750-$3,400/hr

Light jet: $3,750-$4,600/hr 

Mid-size jet: $4,400-$5,900/hr 

Super mid-size jet: $5,500-$7,000/hr

Heavy jet: $7,600-$11,250/hr

This is a middle ground estimation and a very loose one at that. Some charter outfits post somewhat lower or somewhat higher example rates, but at least this offers an idea of just what this type of convenience generally costs and how much it varies depending on the type of aircraft required or requested for the trip. 

Is the perceptively extreme cost of private jet travel worth it? For one, it depends on how much money you have to spend, how much you earn, and how valuable your time is. The advantages private jets provide are costly, but inarguable. The National Business Aviation Association published a study in 2010 showing that small and mid-sized companies that use private jets produce a 219% higher earnings growth than those that use airlines. This may not tell the whole story, but if an individual or a business places extreme value on time management and direct relationships, a jet is likely seen as an essential tool. 

Why? For one, there’s almost no waiting in line. Almost everywhere, your pilots and flight department can arrange for a car service to accommodate plane-side passenger dropoff and pickup without parking woes, long walks through terminals, security lines, and waiting to board an airliner—that is if it even shows up on time. The time spent in airline terminals is time lost to someone who can otherwise spend the time working and making much more money than a jet costs to operate.  

Smaller airports without commercial air service are available to private jets. A city like Los Angeles has many small airports. Direct access to smaller cities in the Los Angeles basin with a private jet can save you from an hour-long drive in heavy traffic resulting from landing at LAX, Burbank, or John Wayne airports in an airliner, and that’s after you make your way out of the terminal. 

A modern jet with WIFI connectivity can not only pay for itself in time saved, it can function as a mobile office. It’s quite reasonable with 24-hour access to a private jet for a passenger to attend meetings and functions in several different cities and still be home the same evening, all the while staying productive in transit. Airborne WIFI subscription plans aren’t cheap, either, and many range in the thousands per month. 

Traditional supply chains and modern outsourced manufacturing alike often geographically separate the critical components of a business. Private flight departments usually work pilot schedules to keep a crew on call all the time. The ability to travel almost immediately is appealing to those who maintain long-distance business relationships. 

New business management tactics become available with a private jet on tap, as well. In the age of smartphones and internet communications, people can be quite bold and unreasonable over email. They are more polite with a phone call and can be even subdued when negotiating differences if you can arrive in their city and take them to lunch on the same day a problem arises. A private jet of any size is most often the only way to provide that flexibility.

Airports with heavy private aviation traffic have FBOs (fixed base operators), which provide terminal services such as refueling, catering, rental cars, and more. Some FBOs handle hundreds of jet refuels per day. There are around 3,000 FBOs in the United States, comprising a multi-billion-dollar industry. FBOs make what is already largely seamless travel even smoother and provide a level of luxury and customer service that simply doesn’t exist in commercial aviation.

To the average person, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a month and millions per year to travel on private jets seems downright outlandish. In that vein, so does having millions of dollars in liquid spendable money and hundreds of millions of dollars in personal assets. Few of us are so fortunate, but most often it’s companies with the resources necessary to acquire and operate a jet, not individuals, although stars and business tycoons usually are what people think about first when private air travel comes up. 

In the end, we’ve underlined the biggest downside to private jet aviation, and it’s inarguably the cost. Those that can afford it either appreciate the luxury or have found it a necessity for their personal lifestyle or business demands. The dollar figures may seem daunting and out of reach, but thousands of private jet flights take place around the world every day. An entire industry of charter operations, FBOs, aircraft manufacturers, and other service providers have developed around supporting private jet travel. So, if you have the financial resources, it’s all sitting right there ready for you. 

The Five Best Planes To Choose For Your Next Flight

Gabriel LeighContributorTravelI cover travel and transport with an eye on urbanism and adventure.

Most people outside the “avgeek” community, and the frequent flyers who are exacting about what they want in a flight (even if they’re not planespotters), don’t pay much attention to aircraft types. That’s a mistake, because the type of aircraft operating your flight can have a huge impact on the overall flight experience – especially if you’re flying economy, where every advantage helps. It’s understandable though, especially when you consider that an A330 on one airline may mean older seats and no mood lighting, whereas on another the same model could have a much more modern and comfortable cabin. Knowing what to look for as you search for flights to book takes quite a depth of knowledge and interest, and most people don’t have time for that.

It is possible, though, to give some general guidelines for planes you should keep an eye out for the next time you’re shopping for flights. These are the top five to aim for if you want a better flight (plus one to avoid):

#1. Airbus A350

A350
A Qatar Airways A350-900. GABRIEL LEIGH

The A350 has entered a number of airline’s fleets over the past few years and it is quickly becoming a passenger favorite. This fuel efficient twin-engined, long-haul plane is unbelievably quiet (though it still feels powerful) and boasts a lower cabin altitude, higher humidity, taller ceilings and bigger windows. It’s a good bet it will also have all the modern airplane perks like mood lighting and the latest entertainment systems and WiFi. Oh and then there’s the stunning tail camera. Seats in economy are usually laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration – the same as most Boeing 787s – but the A350 cabin is wider, so everyone gets more room to stretch out.

Some airlines that have itQatar Airways, Delta, Finnair, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines. Coming soon: Scandinavian Airlines gets their first A350 in December.

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#2. Airbus A220

A220
A Delta A220-100. GABRIEL LEIGH

The A220’s benefits are covered here at length, but to rehash briefly: it’s a fantastically roomy plane considering it’s relatively small (seat count just over 100), it’s quiet, and it has all the newest tech like nice lighting and more.

Some airlines that have it: Delta, airBaltic, Swiss, Korean Air, Air Tanzania. Coming soon: Air Canada, Air France, and more.

#3. Boeing 767

United Airlines Boeing 767-400 ER
A United Airlines Boeing 767-400ER. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images) NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES

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This might be a surprise because the 767 is an older plane. But it’s still a transatlantic workhorse (turns out it ranks number three across the pond), and there’s one simple reason to choose it: a 2-3-2 configuration in economy. That means only one middle seat for every row, and for those traveling in pairs it’s a nice option for sitting together and having a window without a stranger sharing your set of seats. And although it’s an older aircraft at this point, most of the 767s still flying have the nice 777-style overhead bins and reasonably comfortable interiors anyway. If it’s between a 767 and a 787 (with its narrow 3-3-3 configuration; see below for more on that), I’ll pick a 767 every time.

Some airlines that have it: United, Delta, American, LATAM, Austrian Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines. Coming soon: None, but there are rumors that Boeing may launch a new-engined variant and extend its life further. We’ll see what happens.

#4. Airbus A380

A380
An Etihad A380. (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

The A380 may soon be a thing of the past after Airbus announced this year that due to slow sales it would be halting production in the next couple of years. But the double-decker behemoth remains a fantastic airplane to fly on, even if it’s a little too big for most airlines to make money with. It’s quiet and smooth, handles turbulence better than just about anything out there, and evokes a romantic, cruise-ship-in-the-sky feeling. Downsides: it has relatively small windows, its lower deck is almost overly cavernous, and boarding and deplaning alongside so many people at once can be a slow process. But still, it’s a very comfortable airplane.

Some airlines that have it: British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, All Nippon Airways, Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Qantas. Coming soon: Unfortunately there are unlikely to be any new airlines operating the type, and some of the above airlines may soon start to phase them out.

#5. Airbus A320neo

A320neo
A SAS A320neo inflight. GABRIEL LEIGH

The A320neo looks about the same as older A320 family planes, but you can tell it apart by its much bigger engines and distinctive winglets. As an older aircraft with some design improvements, it doesn’t change the game for passengers like the A350 does, but you’re much more likely to come across an A320-sized plane, and if you do, see if you have the option of a neo (look out for code 32N or A20N). The big plus is a much quieter flight, plus likely a more modern cabin with nice lighting. It’s also fuel efficient and puts out less emissions. Downsides: it’s still a 3-3 configured plane in economy, which means that those who like a window seat have to be sandwiched in by up to two strangers.

Some airlines that have it: Delta, American, Frontier, Spirit, Interjet, SAS, British Airways, Lufthansa, TAP, Turkish Airlines. Coming soon: With over 6,000 on order, there are many on the way across the world.

And for one to avoid? This may come as a surprise:

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

A Shanghai airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner at the Shanghai...
A Shanghai airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty … [+] SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

It’s a good new plane in a number of ways, with many of the benefits of the A350 including bigger windows and a more comfortable pressurization and humidity. But it has two distinct problems. The first is relatively minor, but annoying: it has high-tech dimming windows (instead of physical window shades) that can be controlled by the cabin crew, meaning if they don’t want you to look out the window, you won’t get to. The second one is the dealbreaker: nearly all airlines use a 3-3-3 configuration in economy, and the cabin is really a little too narrow for that, meaning a full flight in the back of the plane is borderline torture with narrow seats and no shoulder and elbow room.

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