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Nudging pilots in the airline industry: the case of Virgin Atlantic


Nowadays, technological innovation in the field of sustainability is one of the main drivers for the overall economy. Green energy developments and reduction in emissions are not only considered, at this stage, the right thing to do for the environment in terms of justice for future generations but also as an economic way to reduce costs. In fact, as manufacturing costs of green products steadily drop, we could expect them to become cheaper and attract more and more customers.

However, some already established industries still heavily rely on fossil fuels and switching costs are too high to make economic sense without additional incentives from for example the governments. For such industries, where research and development require sometimes many years to end up with defined solution or products consistent to the business plan, behavioural science can play a crucial role in speed up the process and shift the culture and behaviours inside the company.

How Virgin Atlantic nudged its own pilots

We bring the example of Virgin Atlantic during 2014. The famous airline company conducted a huge experiment involving more than 40 thousand flights and 335 captains. The goal was to measure the power of specific nudges in making pilots more sensitive to fossil fuel savings.

Why nudging the pilots?

You might wonder why pilots are the target of this study. Pilots are more important than you might think. Their actions and responsibilities, although quite limited by development of technologies still play an important role. Currently, pilots still own the right of deciding how much fuel can be put in the plane before the flight began, how much to use after lending and most importantly how to manage the fuel in the period in between.

They can make an infinite number of decisions that involve speed, altitude, route, and other factors that conserve fuel. They can even decide which motors can be switched off and for how much time (of course within regulated limits). Every single action has a direct impact on the amount of fuel used and in turn on the level of emission of the aircraft. The fact that even the best pilot can sometimes make irrational choices and decisions make them the perfect target for a nudge experiment. In the end, there are subject to the same bias impacting everybody else although they have, hopefully for us, higher self-control.

The experiment

Participants to the study were divided into four separate groups, differing for the intensity of the nudge applied to them.

· The first group was a control group,

· In the second group, pilots were given monthly reviews of their fuel-saving performance during an eight-month period in 2014 through mail.

· In the third group, pilots received these reports and an explicit goal for cutting down fuel use. Additionally, they received either applause or more encouragement to improve.

· In the fourth case the company also made a charitable contribution on their behalf if they managed to meet their targets — symbolically, 10 British pounds per month for three fuel conservation areas.


To guarantee consistent results, the fossil fuel level was measured in three different stages. During the take-off, specific time during the operation and finally just after lending.


After all the data had been collected the overall results were astonishing. All three groups saved fuel even beyond how well the control group had done. In total, it has been estimated that this simple experiment saved 6,828 metric tons of fuel for Virgin Atlantic, which are worth 3.3 million British pounds according to the airline. In terms of emission, the action prevented the emission of 21,507 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Note that also the control group which was just alerted of being subject to a study on fossil fuel savings proved significant reductions. It means that the power of the nudge resulted to be even stronger than expected. According to the researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago involved in the study, this behavioural experiment was more cost-effective than many other complicated initiatives having the same aim.

Other industries involvement

The nudge of sending operators reports on their emissions by requiring just a mail address and small incentives can be easily extended to other industries as for instance transportation and shipping. Although the design might be different there are reasons to believe that Global Cargo ships could be the best candidate for further implement the initiative as they are the main contributors to overall emission.


One of the reasons for the success of the experiment is the low cost of implementation. Simply sending Virgin’s pilots various types of communications about their fuel use by mail to their home addresses. This, combined with additional messages or incentives, led pilots to change how they operated in a way that causes substantial fuel savings.


Pietro Fadda - Editor in Chief

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