The Boeing 747 is one of the world’s most iconic passenger airplanes. With its distinctive hump and four engines, it’s instantly recognizable even to casual observers. As a wide-body aircraft, the 747 is capable of carrying hundreds of passengers and tons of cargo across continents and oceans.
But to haul all that weight through the sky requires a lot of fuel. In fact, fuel is one of the biggest operating costs for any airline. So how much does it actually cost to gas up those four thirsty engines on a 747? Let’s take a closer look.
Key Facts About the Boeing 747
First, some key specs on the 747 to set the stage:
- It has a range of about 7,700 nautical miles (8,860 regular miles).
- It has a maximum takeoff weight of up to 970,000 pounds.
- There have been numerous variants over the decades, but most carry 400-500 passengers.
- It has four engines (Pratt & Whitney or General Electric are common).
- Max fuel capacity is 57,285 US gallons.
So in short, it’s a really big plane that can fly a really long way, but needs a lot of fuel to do so.
Fuel Capacity of a Boeing 747
As mentioned above, the 747 can hold up to 57,285 US gallons of jet fuel. That’s almost 220,000 liters!
Of course, airlines rarely fill it up all the way – the plane would be too heavy to take off. A more typical fuel load is around 43,500 gallons.
That fuel is distributed between the wings and the horizontal stabilizer at the tail. The 747 actually has 17 fuel tanks in total!
Having fuel spread throughout the wings and body helps balance the plane for takeoff. The pilots can also shift fuel between tanks midflight to maintain balance.
Max Zero Fuel Weight
There is a maximum weight limit for a 747 without any fuel on board. This is known as the “zero fuel weight” and is around 560,000 pounds for most variants.
So the pilots have about 400,000 pounds of leeway to load up fuel, passengers, cargo, and other supplies. Finding the optimal balance is a key part of flight planning.
Fuel Consumption Rate of a 747
Now that we know how much a 747 can hold, how quickly does it burn through all that fuel during flight?
Airplanes don’t have MPG ratings like cars. Instead, fuel consumption is measured in “fuel burn rate.”
For a 747, the rate is around 12,000-13,000 pounds per hour. During cruising altitude and optimal conditions, it may get down to around 11,000 pounds per hour.
That equates to about 5-6 gallons burned per mile traveled. Given its 8,000 mile range, a full 747 with no reserves would burn around 45,000-50,000 gallons during a typical long-haul flight.
This fuel burn rate can double during takeoff and climb. It’s also much higher if flying into a strong headwind. That’s why pilots load extra fuel as a safety buffer.
Newer Models vs Older Models
Over the 747’s 50+ years in service, engine and design improvements have made it more fuel efficient. For example:
- The 747-100 classic model burned about 13,500 pounds per hour
- The 747-400 burns around 12,000-13,000 pounds per hour
- The 747-8 with newer engines burns 11,000-11,500 pounds per hour
So while the plane has gotten larger and heavier over the decades, engine innovations help counteract that. The latest models can haul more payload using less fuel.
Jet Fuel Prices Per Gallon
We know the fuel capacity and burn rates. But how much does that actual fuel cost to buy?
As with other commodities, jet fuel prices fluctuate daily based on supply, demand, and market conditions. However, airlines buy fuel through longer-term contracts to hedge their costs.
Here are some recent average fuel prices airlines have paid:
- 2020: $1.48 per gallon
- 2021: $2.00 per gallon
- 2022: $3.28 per gallon
Prices spiked in 2022 due to the war in Ukraine and rebounding travel demand after the pandemic. But even at $3 a gallon, jet fuel is cheaper than mid-2000s prices before the shale boom.
Due to their huge fuel consumption, even small price fluctuations have a big impact on airline costs. Fuel is now back to being their largest expense after labor.
Taxes on Jet Fuel
Fuel for commercial airlines is subject to various taxes and fees:
- US federal excise tax: $0.043 per gallon
- Airport fuel flowage fees: around $0.12 per gallon
- State and local sales taxes: 0-5% of cost per gallon
- Landing fees at airports: paid per landing, factor in weight
All combined, taxes can add between $0.20 – 0.30 per gallon.
Airlines don’t have to pay road taxes that drivers pay at the pump. But the many aviation taxes still add up.
Cost to Fill Up a 747 Today
Let’s tie this all together now. Given current prices, how much would it cost to top up a 747 today?
If jet fuel is $3 per gallon, a full 57,285 gallon tank would cost:
57,285 gallons x $3 per gallon = $171,855
Tack on another $0.30 in taxes/fees, and the total is around $172,900 to completely fill up a 747 at current jet fuel prices.
Again, that’s the absolute max capacity. A more typical 40,000-45,000 gallon fill up would cost $120,000-$135,000 with taxes.
For a long haul international route, total fuel cost could be $150,000 or more factoring in reserves and having to refuel at the destination airport.
Fuel Cost as Percent of Operating Cost
For an airline, what does this fuel outlay represent as a percent of total operating costs per flight? Here is a breakdown:
|Labor and staff||25-30%|
|Food, supplies, insurance||5-10%|
|Other overhead costs||15-20%|
As you can see, fuel accounts for a sizeable chunk at 20-25% of the total. Minimizing fuel burn while maintaining safety is a constant focus for airlines.
Even small optimizations like weighing food carts or reducing water onboard can help minimize fuel costs over thousands of flights.
Fuel Cost Per Passenger
Based on costs and capacity, we can also estimate how much an airline has to allocate for fuel cost per passenger.
On a 500 seat 747 flying a long haul route at around $150,000 for fuel, the per passenger cost would be:
$150,000 / 500 passengers = $300 per passenger
Given that long haul flights might average around $500-600 base fares in coach, over half that ticket revenue has to go just to cover fuel!
This is one reason airlines try to keep load factors high by discounting unsold seats. An empty seat still burns the same fuel, so it disproportionately hits the bottom line.
First Class vs Economy Fuel Costs
Since a first class seat takes up more room than economy, the proportional fuel cost is higher per seat for premium cabins.
If a 747 has 100 first class seats and 400 economy seats, the per passenger fuel cost would be:
- First class: $150,000 / 100 seats = $1,500
- Economy: $150,000 / 400 seats = $375
So airlines try to price first class fares high enough to cover the higher costs. This is also why business class seats are so focused on maximizing density.
Fuel Hedging Strategies
Paying for fuel is clearly a huge issue for airlines. What do they do to manage these costs?
The primary strategy is hedging through options and futures contracts. Airlines lock in fuel prices months or years in advance to reduce volatility risk.
If prices rise, the airline pays the lower locked price. If prices fall, they pay the market rate but lose their premiums paid to hedge.
Southwest Airlines is renowned for their fuel hedging prowess, saving them billions over the decades. Other airlines have been burned by mistiming their hedges.
Finding the right balance of hedging future fuel needs is a complex but critical process for every airline.
Some airlines also purchase carbon credits to offset the emissions from their fuel usage.
For example, by contributing to forest conservation projects, the airline can recompense some of the carbon emitted during flight.
While carbon offsets don’t reduce operational costs, they help meet environmental commitments and improve public perception.
Fuel Efficiency Strategies
Besides hedging, airlines also focus heavily on fuel efficiency to manage costs. Key strategies include:
- Fleet renewal – New model planes like the 747-8 burn less fuel
- Engine washing and maintenance to minimize waste
- Software improvements like better flight planning algorithms
- Reduced weights via lighter seats, carts, and supplies
- Crew training on optimal flying, landing, and takeoff techniques
There are also bigger innovations in the pipeline like hybrid-electric and hydrogen fuel cell aircraft. But these are likely decades away from commercial use.
Even minor fuel savings per flight can really add up across an entire airline’s operations.
Fuel Cost Takeaways
So in summary, key takeaways on 747 fuel costs include:
- A full max capacity fill up today would cost around $172,000
- Long haul flights burn $120,000-$150,000 in fuel depending on length
- Fuel is around 20-25% of total flight operating costs
- Hedging contracts help manage volatile fuel expenses
- Improving efficiency reduces costs significantly over time
While passengers may take jet fuel for granted, it’s a massive part of any airline’s balance sheet. Next time you’re on a long flight, know that the fuel alone to get you there probably cost around $300!
Airlines have to operate with razor thin margins, so reducing fuel burn while maximizing revenue per flight is absolutely essential. This complex balancing act means fuel will always be one of the biggest expenses for any carrier.
Fueling a four-engine Boeing 747 is an enormously expensive endeavor, with costs quickly approaching $200,000 to top up the tanks. For airlines, fuel represents 20-25% of total per flight operating expenses. Managing fuel costs through hedging contracts and efficiency improvements is therefore an essential business requirement. However, even with these efforts, filling up a jumbo jet still requires deep pockets. For the flying public, next time you’re on a long haul 747 flight, know that the fuel alone to transport each passenger most likely cost around $300.