Airline finds cheapest way to save fuel is to tell pilots to save fuel

Virgin Atlantic photo
CC BY 2.0 Eluveitie

Airline emissions are a big contributor to climate change. Yet technological progress doesn't seem to be keeping pace with other areas of transportation. It will be a long time, for example, before we see solar planes moving from the experimental into the mainstream.

But there is some hope. Specifically, a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research details how behavioral science can be used to incentivize pilots to save fuel and reduce emissions. Pilots from Virgin Atlantic were split into four groups: One which was simply told that fuel use was being monitored, one which received monthly updates on their fuel usage, one which received monthly updates plus specific goals, and one which received monthly updates, specific goals and also an incentive of donations being made to charity if they achieved their target.

Unsurprisingly, each additional layer of incentive did add somewhat to fuel savings. Interestingly, however, the majority of savings came simply from the pilots being told that fuel use was being monitored in the first place. Researchers point to the study as evidence that significant fuel savings can be achieved with very little investment. In fact, according to an article in the Washington Post, the study was so cost effective that it was claimed to outpace any known carbon abatement technology that researchers were aware of.

Of course, fuel savings depend on the cost of fuel. At the time the study was conducted, researchers pointed to savings from the experiment of 3.3 million British pounds. The cost of fuel has tanked since then (but then—so has the British pound!). The value of saving of 21,507 tons of carbon dioxide, however, may be a more lasting legacy...

Airline finds cheapest way to save fuel is to tell pilots to save fuel
Simply by telling pilots their fuel consumption is being monitored, Virgin Atlantic saved millions.

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