Airline pilots cut their carbon footprint

Just knowing their behaviour was being monitored led to substantial changes in pilots' flying techniques
Virgin Atlantic Image courtesy of Creative Commons

How do you encourage one of the world’s biggest CO2-emitting industries to reduce its carbon footprint? Just tell its employees they’re being watched.

Worldwide, airlines produced 781 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2015 as they transported more than three billion passengers and 35 per cent of the world’s trade. To put it into perspective, if the industry were a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest emitter.

That’s a lot of greenhouse gas in anyone’s language.

But thanks to LSE PhD candidate Greer Gosnell, a field experiment with Virgin Atlanticpilots has helped to cut the airline’s carbon footprint by up to 2200 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Using data on captains’ flying behaviour and fuel loads, Greer partnered with colleagues from the University of Chicago in an eight-month research project to make Virgin Atlantic more environmentally sustainable – and improve their bottom line at the same time.

Focusing on pilots’ pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight behaviours and throwing in a few small incentives, the project led to some huge fuel savings and an unexpected jump in work satisfaction for many of the pilots.

The researchers tracked 40,000 flights flown by 335 captains, giving half of them targets to reduce their carbon footprint in simple ways. These included reducing fuel loads on their aircraft, adopting more sustainable flying practices such as adjusting altitude and cruising speeds, and shutting off unnecessary engines while taxiing after landing.

The pilots were split into four groups:

  • An ‘information’ group where pilots received a monthly feedback report on their flying behaviours;
  • A ‘targets’ group where pilots were given the same feedback but also individual-specific targets to reach;
  • An ‘incentives’ group where pilots got both the information and targets, as well as the promise of a £10 donation to a chosen charity for each target they met in a given month;
  • A ‘control’ group where pilots were told they were being tracked but received no feedback.

The results were mixed but still impressive. Over eight months, 2200 metric tons of CO2 were saved and up to 700,000 kilograms of fuel – courtesy of some simple changes in flying behaviour.

“What surprised us most was the drastic impact on the control group, who received neither feedback nor incentives for adopting more sustainable flying techniques,” Greer said. “Just knowing their behaviour was being monitored led to substantial changes in their flying techniques.”

Captains within the prosocial incentives group not only reduced their carbon footprint but reported higher job satisfaction – attributed to the fact they were helping their chosen charities every time they reached a target. 

“What this experiment has shown is that it is not too difficult to change individual behaviour in our day-to-day lives, which can lead to significant positive changes on a number of fronts,” Greer said.

“In this case, just by altering their flying behaviour, pilots saved Virgin Atlantic a lot of money, helped the environment, and also reported greater wellbeing. There were no drawbacks; it was a win-win for all concerned.”

The experiment also exposed some telling revelations about what motivates workers.

“These findings are so important because motivation is linked to productivity,” Greer said. “By targeting workers rather than firms as a whole, and just telling them their performance is being monitored can significantly boost productivity.”

Behind the article

Greer Gosnell is a Research Officer at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE. She is due to complete her PhD in Environmental Economics by the end of 2016.

Her thesis – “Experiments and Externalities: Understanding Cause and Effect in Environmental Decision Making” – was submitted in September 2016.

Greer has a BSc (Hons) in Economics and a BA (Hons) in Political Science from Loyola Marymount University in the United States as well as an MSc in Environmental Economics and Climate Change from LSE.

The field experiment with Virgin Atlantic Airways was carried out in 2014. Other researchers included Professor John List and Dr Robert Metcalfe from the University of Chicago.  A link to the working paper can be found here: