In an unusual experiment that could have major implications for the role of corporations in fighting climate change, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways recently teamed up with economists to try to “nudge” the company’s pilots to use less fuel, using a variety of behavioral interventions.
And it apparently worked. The intervention was so cost effective, the researchers say, that it “outperforms every other reported carbon abatement technology of which we are aware.”
The study suggests that Virgin — which has long had a sustainability program, and whose founder is a major champion of climate change action — could prove a model for others in the airline industry, and beyond, when it comes to shaping how employee behavior (including very high-level, skilled employees) affects the environment.
The Virgin Atlantic experiment involved a huge volume of data — from 40,000 flights made by 335 captains in 2014. Pilots’ fuel use was measured during three separate flight phases: before the plane takes off, while it is operated in the air and then on the ground post-landing. The results, authored by Greer Gosnell of the London School of Economics and Political Science along with two University of Chicago economists, were just released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Virgin Atlantic has also released its own description of the research here.
“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,” Emma Harvey, who heads Virgin’s sustainability team, said in a press statement. “They were certainly up for the challenge.”
“These small-cost interventions can really have large ramifications for savings, not only for the airline, but for society,” added Robert Metcalfe, one of the study’s authors and an economist at the University of Chicago. The cost was so low, he said, because the study consisted of simply sending Virgin’s pilots various types of communications about their fuel use by mail to their home addresses. It was by providing this information about fuel use, combined with a variety of additional messages or incentives, that led pilots to change how they operated in a way that led to substantial fuel savings.
The work also comes at a time when emissions from the global airline industry are drawing more and more scrutiny amid projections for far higher air travel volumes (and hence, emissions) in the future. Other airlines, such as United, are experimenting with biofuels to try to offset some of their carbon emissions — and at the experimental extreme, battery powered or solar aircraft are also being tested out.
Still, all expectations are that most airlines, for some time, will run on petroleum-based fuels — leading not only to continuing carbon dioxide emissions, but also subjecting airlines to considerable price volatility from the global oil market. All of which makes changing how pilots operate the aircraft and shape its fuel consumption very important.
Virgin’s pilots are highly skilled and well-compensated professionals, whose salaries average $ 175,000 to $ 225,000 per year, according to the study. And they have a great deal of control over precisely how much fuel they use in flight.
Before takeoff, captains can decide how much fuel to put on the plane; during flight, they can make a number of decisions involving speed, altitude, route, and other factors that conserve fuel; and while taxiing, they can shut off one or more engines. All of these choices affect the amount of fuel burned. And while circumstances sometimes force pilots into routes or choices that burn additional fuel, their decisions still matter substantially.
All 335 of Virgin Atlantic’s pilots were part of the experiment, and they were randomly assigned to four separate research groups. At minimum, in what is dubbed the “control” group, the pilots were informed that a study of their fuel use was happening. Then, they received no further information about it.
Nonetheless, this simple alert about being part of a study had a dramatic effect, leading to substantially lower fuel use.
“We were open with the captains, saying, ‘We’re going to randomize you,’” said the University of Chicago’s Metcalfe. “So what we find is, especially for how efficiently they flew the plane, and the engines being used in taxi in, the control group significantly increased their [fuel efficient] behavior.”
But pilots in the three additional groups in the study actually did better than those in the control group, showing additional, if smaller, fuel saving gains. Here, the study fits part of a trend in psychology and behavioral economics, sometimes dubbed “nudging,” in which subtle shifts in in the environments in which actors make decisions are meant to promote more beneficial outcomes.
In one of the experimental cases, pilots were given monthly assessments of their fuel conservation performance during an eight-month period in 2014. In another, they received these assessments and also were given an explicit goal for cutting down fuel use, and received either praise when they succeeded or more encouragement to do better if they didn’t. And finally, in the last case, the company also made a charitable donation on their behalf if they met their goals — 10 pounds per month for hitting targets in each of the three fuel conservation areas.
This the researchers dubbed the “prosocial group,” based on the idea that making pilots feel altruistic would influence their fuel saving behavior.
All three experimental groups saved fuel even beyond how well the control group had done. And the groups that received targeted goals, or that received these goals and also saw charitable donations made if they met them, performed the best of all.
As it turned out, however, the “prosocial” group didn’t perform any better overall than the group that was given clear improvement targets. However, pilots in this group did report the highest level of job satisfaction after the study period had ended.
Overall, the experiment saved 6,828 metric tons of fuel for Virgin Atlantic, worth 3.3 million pounds (at a time when fuel costs were higher than now), according to the airline. That also prevented the emission of 21,507 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The vast majority of this impact came simply from the captains in the control group knowing that Virgin Atlantic was studying their behavior, but the actual experimental interventions pushed the savings up still further.
The research is only the beginning, said Metcalfe — there could be big gains in other transportation related industries, too. In particular, he singled out the global shipping industry, which is also a major polluter and which has drawn increased attention for that reason in recent years.
“I think this is our first foray into this environment, but I hope it’s going to spur much more research,” he said.
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