Last month, I came across a interesting article showing the production breakdown of a barrel (approximately 45 gallons) of oil.

I found it a bit surprising that only 4 gallons, or approximately 11 %, from every barrel of oil is typically produced as aviation fuel.

As Dave Jackson noted in another recent article:

“A-1 jet fuel, a high grade, moisture free kerosene, competes directly with the production of diesel. A refiner has a certain amount of leeway when extracting fuels from each barrel of crude oil. By and large, however, a choice must be made between kerosene or diesel.”

Jackson then asked pretty much the same question I have: What happens when there isn’t enough crude oil to satisfy the full demands of freight transportation and the airline industry? Can’t satisfy them both once oil production begins its continual decline, so what happens? As it stands now and if my math is correct, airlines use somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion barrels of oil each year. That cannot continue in the face of Peak Oil.

What decisions are the various transportation industries—freight and aviation in particular—going to be faced with when the worldwide supply of oil cannot ever match demand again? Who decides which of those two will have priority? It’s unlikely that only one industry will have all of its demand met, so that means both industries will suffer reductions in what is available to them. Then what?

As other writers have duly noted, once Peak Oil’s impact is being felt immediately and daily by the transportation industry, the foods and goods and services we’ve grown accustomed to having on hand 24/7/365 … won’t be. We’re going to have to start making do without some of those products and services we like to enjoy or use whenever the mood strikes, and if we’re being deprived, somewhere along the supply and distribution chain there will be employment and production cutbacks. We all now know what happens when people start losing their jobs and industries stop making or supplying goods and services.

A broader question as it affects aviation: what happens to air travel in general? Once Peak Oil is in full swing, we clearly cannot assume that that same eleven percent of each barrel of oil will still be devoted to producing aviation fuel. What then?

One obvious outcome is that the then more restricted air travel will become more expensive. I’m no economics whiz, but when supply decreases and demand remains steady, prices increase. So get ready for more expensive air travel as well as higher crude oil prices. For many, that means no more air travel. Then what? I’m fairly confident that airlines aren’t going to survive if their increasing costs for fuel lead to fewer passengers (who are obliged to pay much higher fares), and on and on the dominoes tumble.

When the price of a barrel of oil shot up to nearly $150.00 two short years ago, Brad Plumer—in a terrific New Republic article well worth reading—noted that nearly 25 airlines bit the dust just in 2008, almost four times the average. Should we expect anything different the next go-‘round?

On a more personal note, what will families do? As the parent of two daughters currently in college, I recognize first-hand the concerns any parent has when their graduating children decide to take jobs far from home. The emotional pull of wanting the best for your child while nonetheless wanting them close by has a powerful influence on our well-being. What happens if my daughter accepts a job in Portland, Oregon and in the not-too-distant future, the several dozen reasonably priced daily flights currently available out of Boston’s Logan Airport are reduced to just a handful, and the acceptable $550 flight through Dallas suddenly become a $1700 flight with multiple connecting stops en route, and an 8 hour trip is suddenly a two day adventure?

I am well aware that my daughter’s employment and location choices won’t depend one iota on what dear-old-Dad would prefer, but if my daughter does make the choice to live in a locale that is now an airplane ride away and a few years down the road I no longer have that as a feasible option to see her, dear-old-Dad is not going to be a happy camper. (I will let my daughter speak for herself on this subject!)

What happens to business meetings, to governmental business, to international negotiations, to sports travel, to family visits, and a host of other lifestyle and industry needs when we have less aviation fuel competing for our business and personal demands? What happens then?

Who decides which of the limited and now much more expensive flights have priority? Are your business meetings in Chicago more important than the Boston Red Sox seven-game road trip, or a fact-finding mission by several U.S. Congressional leaders, or seeing your parents? We cannot possibly hope to sustain the same level of air service when aviation fuel has doubled or tripled in price, and when perhaps only 4% or 5% of each barrel of a smaller supply of oil is now produced as aviation fuel because somewhere along the line, someone will have decreed that that is the most we can expect from each barrel because of countless other priorities.

To its great credit, Britain recently turned down construction of a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport in favor of committing that same amount of funding to high speed rail, as noted here. Perhaps more insightful than most, the decision-makers likely recognized the pointlessness of committing billions to a service that will likely exist in a greatly-diminished capacity a few short years from now.

As Brad Plumer also noted in his 2008 essay:

“Small towns will be especially vulnerable to losing scheduled air service. That’s already happened to nearly 30 U.S. cities in the past year, from Wilmington, Delaware (population 72,000) to Boulder City, Nevada (14,000). Hagerstown, Maryland, lost all commercial air service recently, rendering its new $61.8 million, 7,000-foot runway useless.”

It won’t end there. What are the ripple effects to communities and regions when airports shut down, or flights are offered on a greatly restricted or reduced basis? What of the people accustomed to relying on those services? What happens then?

Technology is not close to finding adequate alternatives sufficient to meet current and projected demand increases, so what happens? And biofuels, for all their promise, are not close to being deemed an appropriate substitute.

So we can either start making plans, considering alternative forms of transportation, making a greater commitment to seeking alternative sources of energy, or try to come up with last-minute solutions to deal with the problems Peak Oil is going to force upon us.

Hint: That strategy is not likely to work