Pilots’ role in improving fuel economy

 By RP Siegel

The airline industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions—one that is rapidly growing. Changes in aviation technology are on their way, but given safety considerations plus the fundamental requirement for minimal weight, there are limits on the pace at which changes can be incorporated. A recent study conducted by Virgin Atlantic Airways, in partnership with the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed some surprising results. When pilots were given incentives to use their discretion in ways that were appropriate for saving fuel, substantial savings were realized. The greater the incentive, the more fuel saved and emissions reduced…

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Improving fuel economy and reducing emissions from aircrafts is clearly an important goal. Globally, air travel directly contributes roughly 2 percent to the total level of greenhouse gas emissions. Given that the IATA expects to see passenger demand growing by 31 percent from 2013-17, it’s clear that aggressive actions, like those already undertaken by other sectors, are required.

Airlines have been developing a host of innovations from super-light materials, to alternative fuels, to hybrid drive systems and fully electric aircrafts. But a recent study performed by the London School of Economics in partnership with Virgin Atlantic Airways (VAA), found a means of reducing emissions in way that was completely unexpected.

From the perspective of an airline, improving fuel economy is a win-win. Not only do they reduce their operating costs, but they also make progress towards sustainability goals. With this in mind, Virgin Atlantic launched its “Change is in the Air” program in 2007, with a specific focus on reducing its carbon footprint. Since its inception, the company has reduced their CO2 per revenue tonne kilometer, by 9 percent. This they’ve achieved by adding more efficient aircraft, aggressively pursuing weight reduction, and using low-carbon fuels.

As a next step, they looked at the role that decisions by captains could play in impacting fuel consumption. They conducted a randomized control trial (RCT) in which they selected 335 experienced captains, and divided them into four groups. They provided certain information to each group, including, in some cases, some type of incentives related to fuel savings. Then they sat back waited.

The groups were set up as follows:

Group 1 was the control group. They were given only the information provided to all captains via standard operating procedures (SOP).

Group 2 received monthly feedback on their performance relative to SOPs.

Group 3 received the same information as the above groups plus expected targets for the month.

Group 4 received the same as Groups 1-3, plus a donation was made to a chosen charity if targets were met.

Specifically, the targets and feedback were aimed at three fuel-efficient behaviors. There were:

i. Pre-flight Zero fuel weight adjustments (ZFW) for loaded weight. This is essentially the weight of all passengers and cargo. Adjustments would include things like takeoff speed and other parameters.

ii. A range of in-flight Efficient Flight procedures (EF) including things like selecting the point at which to begin descent.

iii. Post-flight Reduced Engine Taxi (RET) to the gate, cutting off one or more engines while taxiing to and from the gate.

All captains received a notification before the program began, explaining the objectives of the program and the RCT design. After this initial notice, Group 1 captains received no further information until the study was over. Groups 2-4 received personalized monthly information by post. A debrief and a questionnaire were sent out to all participants at the conclusion of the study.

SEE MORE: The growth of green aviation by RP Siegel


Upon completion, data from before, during and after the intervention were analyzed. In the course of some 40,000 flights, more than 100,000 observations were analyzed using econometric methods to control for variables such as weather and type of aircraft flown, so that only the net changes in behavior and outcome were credited to the intervention.

The results showed that all intervention groups implemented more fuel-efficient behavior than the control group, ranging from 2-3 percent in ZFW, to 3-5 percent in EF and 8-10 percent in RET. Captains also showed improvements when compared to their own performance before the intervention. Overall the study saved approximately 6,828 metric tons (7,527 short tons) of fuel, corresponding to 21,507 metric tons (23,707 short tons) of CO2 and $43,250,000.

These changes should be relatively easy to implement compared to making modifications to the aircraft. At the same time the captains reported improved job satisfaction.

While we seem to have a penchant for sophisticated high-tech solutions, this serves as a reminder that sometimes human judgment and skill can really make a difference.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.