Virgin Atlantic just used behavioral science to ‘nudge’ its pilots into using less fuel. It worked

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

In an unusual experiment that could have major implications for the role of corporations in fighting climate change, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways recently teamed up with economists to try to “nudge” the company’s pilots to use less fuel, using a variety of behavioral interventions.

And it apparently worked. The intervention was so cost effective, the researchers say, that it “outperforms every other reported carbon abatement technology of which we are aware.”

The study suggests that Virgin — which has long had a sustainability program, and whose founder is a major champion of climate change action — could prove a model for others in the airline industry, and beyond, when it comes to shaping how employee behavior (including very high-level, skilled employees) affects the environment.

The Virgin Atlantic experiment involved a huge volume of data — from 40,000 flights made by 335 captains in 2014. Pilots’ fuel use was measured during three separate flight phases: before the plane takes off, while it is operated in the air and then on the ground post-landing. The results, authored by Greer Gosnell of the London School of Economics and Political Science along with two University of Chicago economists, were just released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Virgin Atlantic has also released its own description of the research here.

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