Airlines tweak flight routes to battle fuel prices

You may not have thought there was anywhere else for the airlines to cut back. But, no. To cut costs, they have actually figured out a way to alter time and space.

Turns out that flight paths as we know them are less-than-efficient, and there are a few methods to wring more economy from the way planes fly on established routes. The airlines are already at it.

Method One: Flights get a little shorter. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has estimated that in Europe, flights are about 30 miles longer than they have to be, mostly because jetliners have to avoid military airspace. Get the guys in green to ease up on peacetime airspace restrictions, and allow commercial pilots to make tighter turns (so hold on to those non-existent peanuts, folks). European flights could shorten by about four minutes if that happens. For the past year, American airlines have been permitted to use military airspace during peak travel periods like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, but mostly to ease delays. It's not a leap to extend those permissions to help ailing airlines save a little more cash.

Method Two: Flights get a little slower. In May, the press caught wind that the airlines were easing up on the throttle to save a little green. Using this method, a Minneapolis-Paris flight was extended by eight minutes and saved the operating airline $500. Planes aren't the only vehicles this works for. Ship captains have been commanded to do the same, and AAA has suggested slowing down as a money-saving strategy for years.

Method Three. Passengers get a little smarter. It would seem to that in some cases, the first two methods would cancel each other out. Airlines gain time when airspace opens up, but lose it by going a little slower. Flight planners seem to know how to balance these concerns out for an ultimate savings. (And you thought the calculus of buying airfare was mind-bending.)

Befuddled travelers don't need to worry about finding fuel-efficient flights, because that's the airlines' problem. But we do need to worry about finding money-saving flights when so many of the major online reservations sites are rigged to favor the major carriers. For us, there are websites like the Icelandic Dohop, which goes the extra mile without upping the price for it. It's one of the few airfare search engines that lump all the so-called low-price airlines in with the majors (which many Web bookers like Orbitz and Expedia can't or won't do), resulting in a list of flights from Point A to Point B that really does report the lowest combos available, even if you have to buy tickets from two sources to piece your trip together.
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