Virgin Atlantic’s Airline Captains Improve Fuel Efficiency

In 2014, Virgin Atlantic Airways (VAA) conducted a pilot with its captains to determine how monitoring, performance information, personal targets, and prosocial incentives would impact fuel-use behaviors, with an ultimate goal of reducing costs and improving fuel and carbon efficiency. Prior to launching the pilot, captain’s managers, union representatives, and a group of experienced captains were recruited to assist with pilot design and developing strategies for pilot rollout. VAA’s Fuel Efficiency and Sustainability teams also teamed up with academics from the University of Chicago and London School of Economics in preparation for pilot evaluation. During this eight-month-long pilot, all 335 captains were randomly assigned to four separate treatment groups. Captains that were randomly placed in the “Control Group” were notified that a study on fuel use was taking place but were given no additional information. Individuals placed in the “Information Group” were given personalized monthly reports that provided feedback on the percentage of flights the previous month for which fuel conserving behaviors were performed. In addition to this monthly, personalized report, captains in the “Information + Targets Group” also received a personalized goal for reducing fuel use through three different behaviors. Goals for each behavior were set at 25% above their pre-pilot baseline levels and were capped at 90%. If two of the three targets were met captains were recognized by receiving a “well done”, while captains that did not meet at least two goals were encouraged to fly more efficiently to reach their goals. The final treatment group, dubbed the “Prosocial Group”, was similar to the “Information + Targets Group” but in addition to being verbally recognized for reaching their goals, captains were also given the opportunity to donate 10 pounds per month to one of five pre-selected charities any time fuel conservation targets were achieved. Analysis involved 110,000 data points from over 40,000 unique flights before, during, and after the pilot, over a 27-month period. This included 13 months of pre-pilot data (baseline), 8 months of intervention data, and six months of post-intervention data. Regression analysis controlled for individual- and flight-level variables such as weather, airport, day of the week, and aircraft flown. While all treatment groups improved fuel efficiency, the “Information + Targets Group” and “Prosocial Group” performed the best during the pilot. The Control Group also exhibited improvements, with a 50% increase in its use of efficient flight and taxi behaviors relative to the pre-pilot baseline. Across all four groups, the behavioral changes resulted in over 7,700 metric tons of fuel saved over the eight-month pilot, amounting to $6.1 million USD saved in fuel costs, and 24,500 metric tons of CO2 abated.
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