Behavioural economics can nudge pilots into greater fuel efficiency finds study

contrail-982978_1280Virgin Atlantic has partnered with leading academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago, to devise a new approach to delivering standard fuel and carbon efficiency information to pilots. This innovative, evidence-based approach resulted in savings of 21,500 tonnes of carbon, and £3.3 million in fuel costs.

Working collaboratively with academics, Virgin Atlantic’s fuel efficiency and sustainability teams developed a process that increased Captains’ awareness of the measures they could take to improve on fuel efficiency. There are a number of things pilots can potentially do to improve fuel consumption and carbon efficiency, which has traditionally been presented to them through training and on-board manuals.

In this project, Captains were randomised into four different groups. These were based on delivering standard fuel efficiency information to the Captains, on three sets of behaviours they can take – before take-off, in the air and upon arrival – all of which can have an effect on fuel consumption.

• Group one – a ‘business as usual’ control group, who continued receiving standard fuel efficiency information in the usual way

• Group two – were sent information on the three sets of behaviours, once a month by post, along with personalised feedback about their fuel efficiency practices

• Group three – the same as group two, but with targets to aim for

• Group four – the same as group three, but with a donation to charity, if targets were met.

Data from more than 40,000 flights was independently analysed by the university team. Of all the groups, numbers three and four produced the most savings, but there was a significant improvement in fuel efficient behaviours in all groups – with the study concluding that raising awareness among pilots is enough to drive significant changes. In addition, in an anonymised post study satisfaction survey, the Captains reported high levels of job satisfaction, with 81% of those responding suggesting they’d like more fuel efficiency information in future.

Dr Emma Harvey, Head of Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic commented: “When the university team approached us about doing an evidence-based study on employee engagement on sustainability, we saw it as a fantastic opportunity to work more effectively with our pilots on fuel and carbon efficiency. They were certainly up for the challenge. Consulting closely with an experienced group of Captains, we were able to design something that would work for them. It was a big undertaking, but the impressive study results are a testament to all of those involved. We’re excited to see how we can build on these findings in future.”

To learn more about the Captains’ Study, visit and click on the ‘What’s going on’ news page.

To read the full academic paper visit Gosnell, Greer K., John A. List, and Robert D. Metcalfe (2016). A New Approach to an Age-Old Problem: Solving Externalities by Incenting Workers Directly. NBER Working Paper.

Read this Undercover Economist blog on the study.

Travindy is an independent website featuring news and opinion on all issues to do with tourism and sustainability. Written primarily for an industry audience, our aim is to support the transformation of the sector into one that is regenerative, restorative and fully inclusive.

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