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Virgin Atlantic Learns That The Best Way To Save Fuel Is To Ask Its Pilots

A small behavioral nudge can slash the carbon footprint of your flights.

Virgin Atlantic Learns That The Best Way To Save Fuel Is To Ask Its Pilots

[Photo: tigristiara via Shutterstock]

How do you make significant fuel savings in kerosene-guzzling jet airliners? The easiest way is to just tell the pilots to take their feet off the pedal, and ease up on the jet fuel a little.

These are the findings of a behavioral research study by three economists, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research with the help of Virgin Atlantic. The researchers, from the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, divided pilots into four groups. One group flew as normal. The other three were told to engage in a set of behaviors that would save fuel before take-off, when in the air, and upon arrival. Of these three groups, the first was given feedback on their performance, the second got this feedback and was also given targets, and the third got feedback and targets, plus a donation to charity on their behalf if they met those targets.

The results were dramatic: Across 40,000 flights, around 21,000 tons of carbon were saved. That’s $4.4 million in savings. The last two groups—those with the most incentive to save fuel—did in fact save the most. But these extras were just icing on the cake: The majority of the savings came from just telling the pilots about saving fuel, and giving them feedback on their own performance.

In fact, the method was so successful that, say the study authors, it "outperforms every other reported carbon abatement technology of which we are aware."

Pilots have a lot of control over the fuel their planes use. According to the Washington Post, they choose how much to carry, they choose their speed, altitude and route, and when taxiing, they can opt to shut down a number of engines. It’s a little like the control you have over the water consumed in your home. You might be one of those monsters who runs the faucet while they brush their teeth, for example, or you may be the kind of considerate person who only boils the exact amount of water they need for their tea, not a whole kettle-full.

The good news is that the pilots were into the whole thing. In a post-study survey, 81% said they wanted more fuel-efficiency information in future. Virgin plans to send the information to its pilots' iPads to make it even more timely and relevant. Amazingly, the feedback during the test was sent to the pilots via regular, old-fashioned snail mail.

Correction: Due to a typographic error, this article previously misstated the dollar amount of fuel savings. It is $4.4 million, not $44 million.

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