Ask the Captain: Are weight and balance issues more of a factor on smaller planes?

John Cox, Special to USA TODAY
·2 min read

Are weight and balance issues more of a factor on smaller planes carrying less than 100 people than larger planes carrying more passengers?

– DNS, Golden Valley, Minnesota

Yes, a weight and balance issue can be more critical on smaller airplane because a even a small error accounts for a larger percentage of the total weight.

A 500-lb. error on an airplane that weighs 5,000 lbs., adds up to a larger percentage of the total weight.

This is why pilots carefully calculate the weight and balance before flight. No matter the size of the airplane, it should be loaded within the proper limits to ensure safe flight.

Which would use more fuel: 100 people flying from New York to Los Angeles on an 737 airliner, or the same 100 people driving there, two people per car?

– Paul Bartlett, Columbus, Indiana

Let's run the numbers, shall we?

The total distance for both the car (let's assume it's a SUV given their popularity and their cargo capacity) and the plane is 2,800 miles.

SUV

Average miles per gallon: 20

Number of cars: 50

Presumed driving time: 42 hours

Total fuel burned in gallons (140) x 50: 7,000 gallons

Boeing 737

Speed of 737: 500 mph

Gallons per hour: 740

Flying time: 5.6 hours

Total fuel burned: 4,150 gallons

Based on this rough calculation, the 737 would burn 59% of the fuel that the SUVs use and would get there in 5.6 hours instead of 42.

Assuming a nationwide average price per gallon of $2.20 (per AAA), the people in each car would spend a little over $300 on regular gas alone. That's not counting one or two nights in a hotel along the way. By way of comparison, right now, a nonstop, one-way ticket from JFK to LAX is running around $275 on JetBlue.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ask the Captain: Do weight and balance matter more on small planes?