Behavioral economics helps boost fuel and carbon efficiency of airline captains

Interventions rooted in behavioral economics can significantly and safely boost the use of fuel- and carbon-efficient flight practices in the airline industry, according to economists at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The large-scale study, which incorporated data from more than 40,000 unique flights, found significant savings in carbon emissions and monetary costs when airline captains were provided with tailored monthly information on fuel efficiency, along with targets and individualized feedback. The behavioral effects of such interventions are currently estimated as the most cost-effective way to prevent a metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

The study was conducted in partnership with experts in sustainability and flight operations at Virgin Atlantic. It included UChicago economists John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Economics, and Robert Metcalfe, Becker Friedman Institute research scholar; as well as Greer Gosnell, a PhD researcher at LSE.

“Our study demonstrates the potentially large effects behavioral research can have in providing crucially important win-win solutions for the economy and environment, by improving existing efficiency opportunities in the workplace,” Metcalfe said. “This inexpensive and scalable strategy represents a feasible and cost-effective way to help airline captains use standard fuel efficiency information in a more effective way.”

For many years, teams at Virgin Atlantic have been pursuing ways to enhance fuel and carbon efficiency, including having standard operational procedure information for fuel efficiency in pilot manuals. The company sought to work with researchers to deliver this standard operational procedure information in a more timely and useful way, and to measure the effects. Experts from Virgin partnered with the study’s authors to design the field work and gather data through the company’s internal systems.

“Every airline is looking for ways to improve fuel efficiency and working with the university team on this evidence-based study was an opportunity for us to use our data differently and engage with our captains in a way we hadn’t before,” said Claire Lambert, fuel efficiency manager for Virgin. “It was a substantial piece of work, but the results are impressive, and the insight we’ve gained invaluable. We’re keen to build on this in the future.”

The researchers found the steps taken by airline pilots in response to the interventions produced savings estimated at $250 per metric ton of CO2 abatement. The foremost existing approach of efficient residential lighting produces a savings of approximately $180 per metric ton of CO2 abatement. (Such calculations do not take into account the business costs of implementing the systems.)

Steps taken by airline captains before takeoff, in the air and upon arrival can all affect fuel consumption. As part of the study, the researchers randomized captains to one of four groups, including one ‘business as usual’ control group and three active intervention groups, and sent them monthly letters from February 2014 through September 2014. The letters provided one or more of the following: personalized feedback on the previous month’s fuel efficiency practices; targets and feedback on fuel efficiency in the upcoming month; and a £10 donation to a charity of the captain’s choosing for each of three behavior targets met.

Analysis of captains’ responses to the interventions show that:

  • All four groups increased their implementation of fuel-efficient behaviors, demonstrating that informing captains of their involvement in a study significantly changed their behavior. (It’s a well-documented social science finding called the Hawthorne effect.)
  • Tailored information with targets and feedback was the most cost-effective intervention, improving fueling precision, in-flight efficiency measures and efficient taxiing practices by 9 percent to 20 percent.
  • Contrary to expectations based on prior studies, charitable contributions for meeting targets did not further change behavior, but captains in this group reported 6.5 percent higher job satisfaction than captains in the other groups.

The interventions of the authors appear to induce habit formation, as fuel efficiency measures remained in use after the study ended. The researchers estimate a cost savings of $5.37 million in fuel costs for the airline and reduced emissions of more than 21,500 metric tons of CO2 over the eight-month period of the study.