What Should We Add to the Airplane Ticket Price?

How much should we be paying for airplane flights? It’s a frequently asked question, at least I’ve been asked often.

Surprisingly, people who fly pay no sales tax on flights that leave the state, nor do they pay the fuel taxes required of car and truck drivers. Flight taxes (partially?) cover security costs and air traffic control, rather than contributing to the common good. This means that those who don’t fly subsidize those who fly often.

Industry reports that airlines now get 46.8 passenger miles/gallon. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report Aviation and the Global Atmosphere suggests that the radiative forcing is 2 to 4 times higher than the carbon dioxide emitted predicts, in part because of aerosols, NOx, water vapor, and other gases released in the upper troposphere.

Let’s use an example of a one-way trip from Los Angeles to New York to London, paying American fuel tax on the first leg, British fuel tax on the second, and greenhouse gas taxes of $20 (expected tax in the next decade or two) or $50 (further along) per (American) ton of carbon dioxide.

This analysis will ignore sales tax for tickets. You may wish to pay your share of living in society by paying extra for your ticket: sales tax is 8.25% in Los Angeles, higher in New York City, and much higher in London.

Fuel tax is currently not applied to commercial airlines. Californians pay 18.4 cent/gallon federal plus 45.9 cent/gallon state for fuels. This is intended to cover road construction and some mass transit. On a $2/gallon base price, add 16.5 cent for sales tax. British fuel tax is about $4/gallon.

The leg from Los Angeles to New York is 2,500 miles. Assuming 46.8 passenger miles/gallon, one person’s share is 53 gallons of fuel. CA and federal fuel taxes, if applied, would add $34 to ticket price; sales tax adds $9.

On the New York to London leg (3,500 miles), the British fuel tax on the 74 gallons you are responsible for adds $296 one way, if applied.

Assume an initial greenhouse gas tax of $20 per (American) ton carbon dioxide equivalent*, and just over 0.5 pounds carbon dioxide eq/passenger mile, including upstream costs.** But the actual GHG effect is much greater, as if we added between 1 and 1.9 pounds carbon dioxide/passenger mile to the atmosphere, using the 2 – 4 x factor recommended by IPCC. For the LA – NY leg, this comes to 1.2 – 2.4 tons carbon dioxide equivalent. Add between $25 and $48 GHG tax for a one-way trip between coasts.

The leg between New York and London adds between 1.7 and 3.3 tons carbon dioxide equivalent, using the 2 – 4 x factor, and the $20/ton greenhouse gas tax adds between $35 and $65. Total for both legs: $60 – $110, one way.

This is the price of an early greenhouse gas tax. If the tax increases to $50/ton, the LA-NY leg should include a greenhouse gas tax of somewhere between $62 and $111. The NY-London leg adds between $88 and $166. Remember, these price increases are not for the round trip. Total for both legs, $150 – $280.

A longer answer for all those who have been bugging me about greenhouse gas offsets for flying. Please let me know if this analysis could be improved.

To do this yourself:

Find air miles for one way or round trip at some calculator such as WebFlyer.

Multiply number of miles by $0.01 – $0.019/mile (accounts for IPCC fudge factor on extra greenhouse gas effects of airplanes) for a greenhouse gas tax of $20/ton carbon dioxide equivalent.

Multiply miles by $0.025 – $0.048/mile (accounts for IPCC fudge factor) for a greenhouse gas tax of $50/ton carbon dioxide equivalent.

Divide number of miles by 46.8 to get gallons of fuel per passenger, then calculate fuel and sales taxes for your state.

Add sales tax to ticket cost (optional).

Invest the money in reducing your own emissions, or someone else’s. You can buy compact fluorescent bulbs, for example, and ask the local food bank to distribute them, perhaps 3 per family.

Note: I’ve changed assumptions about greenhouse gas tax since first posting.

*Sometime in the next decade or two, greenhouse cap and trade policies will create an effective greenhouse tax of about $20/ton carbon dioxide. People in policy differ on how fast technological change and policy implementation will reduce emissions, how much can be accomplished by mandate (better fuel economy for cars and air conditioners) rather than capping emissions, etc. Some people in policy believe that cap and trade policies will create a tax of more than $100/ton carbon dioxide, others that it will never go over $50. Failure to address climate change seriously today will lead to much higher costs tomorrow.

** This assumes 21.1 pounds CO2eq/gallon jet fuel, plus 16% for upstream costs of discovery, refining, and transportation. Greenhouse gases for building the airplane are not counted, and are relatively small compared to the GHG cost of the fuel.

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