Here’s why air fares aren’t going down, despite cheap fuel

Drivers are loving life whenever they fill up at the gas station. According to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report, the national average Thursday was $2.477 for regular 87-octane gas. That’s down 23 percent from the same time last year, when the average was $3.216.

So why haven’t air travelers seen similar savings on airline tickets? After all, fuel accounts for between one-third and one-half of the entire cost of running an airline, and the jet-fuel prices have fallen at the same pace as automotive gasoline, down 32 percent over the last year.

And yet not only are airlines not discounting fares, they’re counting their winnings after years of economic struggles: Slate’s Josh Vorhees reports that airlines in North America expect their profits to grow from $11.9 billion in 2014 to $13.2 billion in 2015. The trade group Airlines for America said in a statement that its members are re-investing in 317 new planes, better amenities for passengers, dividends for shareholders and employee benefits. The group added that:

Air travel remains one of the best consumer bargains, given its superior speed and price compared with other modes of transportation. From 2000-2013, U.S. Consumer Price Index rose 35 percent, whereas average domestic airfare rose 15 percent. Thus, adjusted for inflation, the average round-trip domestic fare fell 15 percent.

When the airline industry is financially healthy, everyone wins. Airlines should be treated like every other business. When the price of coffee beans falls, no one asks Starbucks why his or her latte does not cost less. …

Here are three big reasons why airline customers aren’t seeing cheaper fares:

  • Many airlines buy fuel ahead of time, locking in a fixed price for six months or longer. It’s called “hedging,” and although not every airline does it (American doesn’t, and it’s reaping a windfall), it explains why some travelers are still being hit with fuel surcharges. Sen. Chuck Schumer wants the federal government to investigate the industry: “Ticket prices should not shoot up like a rocket and come down like a feather,” he said.
  • Supply and demand. Where’s the incentive for airlines to reduce fares when their North American planes are filled to 85.1 percent capacity? As The New York Times notes in an editorial, “a series of megamergers has significantly reduced competition in the industry. The four biggest airlines in the United States — Delta, Southwest, United and American — control about 80 percent of airline capacity, down from 11 companies as recently as 2005. For most travelers, that has meant higher prices and jam-packed planes.”

It’s impossible to predict where fuel prices will be in the new year, and airline executives might be reluctant to reduce fares now, only to have to hike them again in a few months. Alexandre de Juniac, head of Air France-KLM, told The New York Times that oil might be between $70 and $80 a barrel next year (it’s below $60 now). But he added: “Obviously, no one really knows.”

Can Butanol Be the New Ethanol?

Even as the ethanol industry is wobbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate in 2014, a new candidate has emerged as an additive to gasoline – butanol.

Virgin Airways founder and CEO Richard Branson has announced that his Virgin Green Fund will be cosponsoring a groundbreaking butanol manufacturing plant in Luverne, Minnesota.  “Butanol is the future of renewable fuel,” said Branson, who is already using renewable jet fuel for his airline.  “It’s hugely versatile and can be used to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, and plastics, which gives us scope to enter a range of markets,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol now dominates the $26 billion gasoline additive market, drawing the glucose content out of 45 percent of the nation’s corn crop (the protein is fed to animals).  Branson’s butanol would use a similar feedstock – corn, sugar cane or cellulosic biomass – but would produce a fuel that has 84 percent of gasoline’s fuel density compared to ethanol’s 66 percent, although ethanol has a higher octane rating.  The implication is that butanol could be mixed at higher blends, giving it almost the same range as gasoline.

Both butanol and ethanol are made through a process that employs yeasts to ferments the glucose from organic material into alcohols.  Methanol, the simplest alcohol, has one carbon joined to a hydroxyl ion while ethanol has two carbons and butanol has four.  Octane, the principal ingredient in gasoline, has eight carbons without the hydroxyl ion.

As far a butanol is concerned, it’s not as if people haven’t tried this before.  Both BP and Royals Dutch Shell have experimented with producing butanol from organic material but have found the process harder than they anticipated.  “There is certainly a potential, but there have been quite considerable problems with the technology,” Clare Wenner, of the London-based Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg.  “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

Gevo’s plant in Minnesota, for instance, has been running at only two-thirds of its 18 million gallon-a-year capacity because of a contamination in its yeast fermenting facility in September 2012.  Similar instabilities in the microbial-based process have dogged the efforts to break down cellulose into simple molecules.  There operations can often be performed in the laboratory but become much more difficult when moved up to a commercial scale.

Branson is confident these obstacles can be overcome.  He’s already got Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla on board in Gevo and Total, the French oil company, has also taken a stake.  Together they have enlisted big ethanol producers such as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol to commit to switching their manufacturing process to butanol.  Butamax Advanced Biofuel, another Minnesota refiner funded by Dupont and BP, is also in the process of retrofitting its ethanol plant to butanol.  Taken together, these facilities would be able replace 1 billion of the 14 billion gallons of ethanol now being produced every year.

Whether this would be enough to make a bigger dent in America’s oil import budget remains to be seen.  The 14 billion gallons of ethanol currently substitutes for 10 percent of our gasoline and about 6 percent of our total oil consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency has limited ethanol additives to 15 percent of the blend, mainly to protect older cars.  (In Iowa, newer cars are running on an 85 percent blend.)  Now the reduction in the 2014 mandate is making the ethanol industry nervous about overcapacity.  Butanol is less corrosive of engines and the 16 percent blend could give it an edge.

On another front, T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it may turn a profit for the first time since its founding in 1997.  Clean Fuels is concentrating on supplying compressed natural gas for trucks, signing major contracts with Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service and Ryder.  It is also attempting to set up a series of filling stations on the Interstate Highway System.  The use of CNG requires an entirely new infrastructure, however, rather than the easy substitution of liquid and butanol.

The dark horse here is methanol, which is liquid and fits easily into our present infrastructure but would be synthesized from natural gas.  Somehow, methanol has not attracted the attention of Branson’s biofuels and Pickens’ CNG.     All of these efforts hold promise, however, and would make a huge dent in our annual $350 billion bill for oil imports, which constitutes the bulk of our $450 billion trade deficit.  So good luck to all and may the best fuel win – or all of them, for that matter.