United Airlines to Begin Using Lighter Paper to Lower Fuel Costs

A United 737 pulling into the gate in Houston (Photo: United)

United Airlines is taking a unique approach to reducing fuel consumption and sees an opportunity with reducing paper usage.  Rather than reducing the size of seats, removing more in-flight entertainment screens or further limiting the amounts of luggage passengers can carry on, the airline will be cutting one ounce (28 grams) from the paper used to make its in-flight magazine, Hemisphere.

According to the L.A. Times, who cites an ‘internal message to United employees’ as the source, the airline has saved 170,000 gallons of fuel by trimming the weight of a single Hemisphere edition to 6.85 ounces (194 grams).

Lesson one in aviation engineering is that weight and drag are the enemies of flight. Fuel is the single biggest cost facing airlines across the world, and the issue of saving every cent possible has CEOs, pilots, and engineers all scratching their heads.

Manufacturers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars a year in pursuit of more efficient engines and wings, a more aerodynamic fuselage, or lighter, more exotic materials from which to construct rivets, screws, seats, or any of the millions of components that make up a modern airliner.

But sometimes, all it takes is the smallest alteration. In this case, paper.

It may seem trivial, but look at the numbers when applied to a Boeing 737-900, of which United operates 148; with a typical capacity of 179 seats, meaning 179 magazines, the weight reduction would equate to 11 pounds (5kg) per flight.

This initially may not appear significant, but when applied across the entire fleet of 745 aircraft, United estimates that this approach will save $290,000 per year in fuel costs.

Cynics may point to the fact that reducing the weight of paper may compromise the quality of the publication and may, therefore, increase wastage and offer passengers a poorer product, but that remains to be seen.

This isn’t the first time airlines have resorted to micromanagement of passenger’s cabin luxuries in order to save money.

In the 1980s, American Airlines routinely removed a single olive from each of the in-flight salads offered to customers, and in doing so saved themselves $40,000 per year. In 1994 Southwest Airlines removed their logo from trash bags, saving an incredible $300,000 in printing costs.

Last year, Finland’s flag-carrier, Finnair, sought 2000 passengers to volunteer to be weighed in order to gather data to examine opportunities for reducing operating costs and streamlining fuel estimates. Similar schemes were implemented previously by Hawaiian Airlines, Uzbekistan Airways, and the now-defunct Somoa Air.

Andy Nelson

Andy Nelson

Andy flew regularly from a young age on family holidays, but his interest in airplanes really began when he saw Concorde flying over his grandparents' house on final approach. He's about to begin his honors year studying electrical power engineering, and it's his ambition to one day work in the aviation industry in an engineering capacity. In his spare time, Andy writes, plays guitar, and takes a beating at squash.
Andy Nelson