The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving

Driving a mere thirty miles around the Beltway (in my nifty hybrid car, no less) to visit my parents on Thanksgiving will be a snap compared to what many people face. Rising prices for airlines and hotels have spoiled the holiday for many families, since it makes travel a lot harder.

Thanksgiving puts consumers on the front lines along with businesses in the battle against rising oil prices, which hit another record yesterday at $99 per barrel, prompting one analyst to refer to $100 as simply “the next target.”

Perhaps no one feels the squeeze more than commercial aviation, where cost trends show that fuel has recently trumped labor in terms of effects on the industry. Historically, aviation has instituted many cost-saving measures, bringing up efficiency of the average commercial aircraft by 70 percent in the last 40 years. And the next jump in efficiency is here, thanks to former Boeing CEO Alan Mulally (who will hopefully push Ford to similar advances in efficient technology) under whose watch the company developed the 787, dubbed the “Dreamliner” in part due to anticipated 20 percent fuel savings compared to similar-sized craft.

More efficiency in aviation is possible, indeed high prices and new policy should prod it along. And certain laws of economics are immutable: Bring demand down, and prices will come down.

Of course, in the U.S. this subsector is a mere 10 percent of the overall transportation sector’s oil-consumption footprint, so efficiency elsewhere is imperative too. As readers of this blog know, our car and truck fleet is the biggest culprit at nearly 70 percent of total oil demand for transportation, so airlines should praise Congress for being on the brink of enactment of substantially higher fuel economy standards for the first time in thirty years.

But for now, consumers and families suffer the fallout from prices driven up by our insatiable thirst for a scarce resource mostly located under the soil of hostile or untrustworthy countries (How scarce? Check out this new, disturbing article in Wired magazine).

The upshot? Prices are like the Grinch, and all us Whos in Whoville have to face the fact that he’s arrived early, to steal Thanksgiving joy from many families.