Meet the Sustainability Leader: Virgin Atlantic – Employee Engagement and Behaviour Change

With entries now open for edie's revamped 2019 Sustainability Leaders Awards, this new feature series will showcase the achievements of the 2018 winners, revealing their secrets to success. Up next: our 2018 Employee Engagement and Behaviour Change winners, Virgin Atlantic.

The aviation sector is one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the world. As such, Virgin Atlantic’s innovative behavioural change programme designed to help pilots fly greener is to be commended.

In 2016, the airline published the results of an evidence-based study which engaged airline captains in fuel and carbon-saving initiatives. Virgin Atlantic pilots teamed up with academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago to come up with a new approach to delivering fuel and carbon efficiency information to pilots to help reduce emissions.

The results were staggering: over the course of the eight-month intervention period, Virgin saved more than 6,800 tonnes of fuel and 21,500 tonnes of CO2. The economic benefits were even more remarkable, with a healthy £3,309,489 saved for the business.

The interventions aimed to improve implementation of pre-flight calculations on how much fuel to use, alongside a range of in-flight efficiency procedures and post-flight reduced engine taxiing to the gate. The experiment involved a huge volume of data – more than 40,000 unique flights and 110,000 captain-level behavioural observations were analysed using econometric methods that looked at a number of variables, such as weather and aircraft flown.

For the project, pilots were split randomly into four groups. The first group carried on with a business-as-usual approach, while the other three groups were sent monthly information on three sets of behaviours: take-off, in the air and upon arrival, along with personalised feedback about their fuel efficiency practices. However, group three was additionally given monthly targets to aim for, and group four was also given a charitable donation incentive for each target met every month.

All three intervention groups implemented each fuel-efficient behaviour on a larger percentage of flights than the control group. Groups three and four were deemed the most effective interventions, although improvements were seen in all four groups and most of the fuel and carbon savings were attributed to captains’ awareness of being monitored. This is a well-documented social phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect where people change their behaviours as a function of being observed.

Just under two-thirds of captains took part in a post-study satisfaction survey. Those in groups two, three and four reported higher levels of job satisfaction, while 81% of those taking part in the survey said they would like to receive more fuel and carbon efficiency information in the future.

This suggests that the project not only led to increased fuel efficiency, but also to increased captain satisfaction levels, willingness to be involved in the issue and overall engagement in fuel and carbon efficiency.

Tailored information with targets and feedback was the most cost-effective intervention, improving fuel precision, in-flight efficiency measures and efficient taxiing practices by 9% to 20%. Contrary to expectations based on prior studies, charitable contributions for meeting targets did not induce greater efforts than personalised targets, but captains in this group reported 6.5% high job satisfaction than captains in the other groups. Improving fuel and carbon efficiency has been a top environmental policy for Virgin Atlantic since establishing the ‘Change is in the Air’ sustainability programme in 2007 and this has included having standard operational procedure information for fuel efficiency in pilot manuals. The airline also uses a fuel monitoring system provided by Rolls-Royce Controls and Data Services, which has enabled it to more accurately calculate the savings from more efficient A330 and B787 aircraft coming into the fleet.

Virgin continues to explore new approaches to help support fuel and carbon-efficient behaviours in its pilots. Since the study, the company has worked with its pilots to introduce reduced engine taxiing out to the runway – a sister initiative to reduce engine taxi into the gate. This initial trial in 2016 saved 185 tonnes of CO2 and Virgin has now updated its pilots’ guidance manuals across its Airbus fleet to introduce the measure.

Pilots can monitor and manage their performance in the future through the use of iPads on the flight deck. All pilots now have iPads and they are being integrated into flight procedures. Virgin’s future intention is to load performance information directly to the tablets, which would digitise the ‘reminder letters’ used in the study. Evidence from professional studies suggests that reminders provided close to the point of decision-making are highly effective in creating the desired changes in behaviour.

What the judges said: “Using a randomised control trial means you can be absolutely sure that the results Virgin Atlantic has driven were driven solely by behaviour change. A fantastic demonstration of how to do a behaviour change campaign. The savings achieved make a real contribution to addressing the climate change impact of flying.”

edie’s 2019 Sustainability Leaders Award

Now in their 12th year, the RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards have undergone a major revamp, with a host of new categories and judges, a new Awards venue, and a new Mission Possible theme – making 6 February 2019 the biggest night of the sustainable business calendar.

The entry deadline for the 2019 Sustainability Leaders Awards is Friday, 14 September 2018. The Awards will then take place on the night of 6 February 2019 at the Park Plaza London, Westminster. 


Matt Mace

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