Pilots can make Flight Greener, Quickly!

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Pilot Fuel Efficiency Strategy Can Work Immediately

No doubt about it—technology holds great promise to reduce aviation’s CO2 emissions. The EU has expressed great impatience with the time it takes to transform great ideas into reality. The innovations in engine design, fuel chemistry and other aeronautical improvements require substantial laboratory, operational and regulatory proofs to deliver the greener operations.

pilot fuel efficiency

As noted in an article written by professors from the University of Chicago, there may be immediate benefits obtainable from emphasis on human behavior. The summary is as follows: 

“By partnering with Virgin Atlantic Airways on a field experiment that includes over 40,000 unique flights covering an eight-month period, we explore how information and incentives affect captains’ performance. Making use of more than 110,000 captain-level observations, we find that our set of treatments—which include performance information, personal targets, and prosocial incentives—induces captains to improve efficiency in all three key flight areas: pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight. We estimate that our treatments saved between 266,000-704,000 kg of fuel for the airline over the eight-month expilot fuel efficiencyperimental period. These savings led to between 838,000-2.22 million kg of CO2 abated at a marginal abatement cost of negative $250 per ton of CO2 (i.e. a $250 savings per ton abated) over the eight-month experimental period.”

[emphasis added]

In less academic terms, Robert Metcalfe, an economist at the University of Chicago, explained:

“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…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.”

[emphasis added]

Designed to produce statistically reliable results, randomly selected PICs received instructions to fly more efficiently in all three phases and then were notified about their performance with one of three rewards:

  1. personalized feedback on tpilot fuel efficiencyhe previous month’s fuel efficiency practices;
  1. targets and feedback on fuel efficiency in the upcoming month; and
  1. a £10 donation to a charity of the captain’s choice for each of three behavior targets met.”

[emphasis added]

All four classes (including the 4th group which was the “test object” with no changes) performed better. Category 1 was “the most costeffective intervention, improving fueling precision, in-flight efficiency measures, and efficient taxiing practices by 9 percent to 20 percent.” Based on previous similar studies, it was expected that Category 3 would achieve the highest performance, but those directing rewards to their preferred charities did not do better. There, however, was some value gained; the captains reported “6.5 percent higher job satisfaction than captains in the other groups.”

From a corporate perspective, Virgin Atlantic’s Claire Lambert, fuel efficiency manager, exclaimed:

“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…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.”

[emphasis added]

pilot fuel efficiency

Hopefully, the Virgin Atlantic/University of Chicago study will be widely circulated within the airline industry and the $250 savings per ton abated will be an achievable metric TOMORROW.

Just telling the universe of airline captains, that their greater care in fuel efficiency will likely result in greener flights—with or without the reinforcement mechanisms used by Chicago, is highly likely to see immediate results. The phenomena, the Hawthorne Effect, will lift the green effect in the short term, but feedback  should sustain the lower CO2 impact and heighten aviation’s green credits.

P.S. This notion that human behavior can deliver benefits quickly seems a bit too intellectual and not practical. Thirty years ago, a local GA pilot group was threatened with closure of their airport. They, with help from the FAA, commissioned a study of noise abatement strategies. The experts could not promise much reduction in the impact by bringing in newer, quieter aircraft due to cost and time. They did, however, find that if the pilots flew by the numbers and resisted their instincts to apply max thrust, the noise envelope will shrink immediately and dramatically. The local fliers committed to the new behavior and the airport opponents quieted down (for a while).


ARTICLE: Feedback prompts pilots to cut carbon emissions

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