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Little Changes Add Up In Aviation Roundtable Discussion Recap

Natalie LeRoy
December 7, 2020
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Thanks to all for attending our webinar last month on how little changes add up in aviation!

Uniting different sides of the same challenges in aviation is the goal of Signol.  So, for our very first webinar on 19th November, we explored how small behavioral interventions can address modern aviation problems from the perspectives of airline management, safety departments, and pilot unions.

Our line-up of experts included:

Rob Metcalfe Co-Founder of Signol, Associate Professor at University of Southern California

Captain Andy Greig Training Captain at Jet2

Jamie Ainsworth Head of Safety at Virgin Atlantic

Niklas Ahrens Senior First Officer at Lufthansa and Cyber Security expert


As Signol’s Product Manager, it was my pleasure to moderate this roundtable. Let’s review the key takeaways from the webinar which span the application of behavioral nudges, introduction of new technologies, data privacy, and current market shocks in light of Covid-19.

Key takeaways

1 – Happiness is a viable way to encourage productivity


“Happiness is a low-hanging fruit for a company, but also to increase general productivity” - Niklas Ahrens


2020 has been a rough year for pilots and aviation. But, even during well-functioning periods, pilots traditionally manage  demanding schedules that take a toll on their mental and physical health.


As Jaime Ainsworth stated, “When a company provides an environment that is goal-driven, and engagement-led, we’ve seen pilots be as efficient as they can be.” Prioritizing a culture of open communication can lead to both happier pilots and a better bottom line.



2 – Productivity isn’t necessarily about handing over more money; it’s about helping people feel better about their work

Rob Metcalfe shared what he found most surprising about the study with Virgin Atlantic:

“As an Economist, there is the adage [that] if you try to get people to do more work... without financial compensation, they should have lower satisfaction, but that's the opposite of what we found in the VAA study.
Those [captains] in our intervention groups had a higher job satisfaction, to the tune of say going from poor health to excellent health....That blew us away; to recognize the performance of captains and not-so-good captains actually had that effect; but we had a randomized controlled trial and the data is what the data is.
And that was core to the change of the study, that it could have an effect on morale and job satisfaction benefits. I didn’t really expect [the margins] to be so large, but they were.
We asked them questions in the survey if people wanted these practices to carry on and increase and the majority (about 80%) of captains said yes."


3 – Each flight is different; and targets should be different for each captain.


In aviation, operational data is typically used to tighten compliance to procedures. Yet, as any pilot can tell you,there are numerous factors that influence how a journey unfolds-- can a behavioral measurement tool account for all of them? In fact, most of our webinar audience responded that their biggest concern about incorporating behavioral science in aviation is the prioritization of key performance indicators over other variables.

“In the real world, there needs to be a bit of deviation.” - Captain Andy Greig

Rob Metcalfe agreed that safety is the ultimate priority -  setting targets should not interfere with this.  Nonetheless, using personalized targets and introducing measures that are “smart [and] attainable, dramatically changed [captain] behavior in the initial study.”


First Officer Niklas Ahrens echoed Captain Greig’s sentiment: captains may perform differently on fuel-efficient margins because of their routes. To this point, Rob explained that Signal controls for different variables, that behavioral interventions can only be effective when they account for situational variables. Ultimately, Signol focuses on the effects that a captain is responsible for and respects practical limitations:


“If you didn’t hit your target, we simply tell you that. There are no sanctions, penalties, or punishments around that.” - Professor Robert Metcalfe


“Information saying what was expected of you between the captain and the airline worked really really well.” according to Metcalfe.

The panelists agreed that key performance indicators set by third parties offer a more neutral approach that can work for both airline management and pilots.



Our Roundtable Participants:

Rob Metcalfe is a co-founder of Signol and a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, previously an Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University. His research tests economic theory using field experiments and identifies practical solutions to business and government challenges. He was a collaborator on MINDSPACE, the first influential report about the applications of behavioral economics. Rob’s recent research has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, and was cited in the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Richard Thaler.

Captain Andy Greig MRAeS is an experienced airline training captain at Jet2, with a flying career spanning over three decades of military and worldwide commercial operations. With an MSc in Air Safety Management, he specializes in the risks associated with human decision-making in safety critical systems, with a particular interest in mitigating the adverse effects of fatigue. He is a trained accident investigator, and a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Jamie Ainsworth has worked within commercial Aviation for the last twenty years. Jamie has a long history working in a variety of roles from: Cabin Crew, Flight Operations, Operations Duty Manager and managing a startup and launch of eighty network destinations from Dubai. Over the last six years in Virgin Atlantic, Jamie has led multiple teams, including Flight Planning, Navigation Services, Flight Operations Engineering, Fuel Efficiency, EFB and Flight Operations Technical Authoring. His current role is that of Head of Safety (Nominated Person – Safety Manager) which he has held since September 2018. Jamie also holds a Private Pilot's License.

Niklas Ahrens is a Senior First Officer on A330/340 in Germany, Cybersecurity Expert and involved with several aviation unions including Vereinigung Cockpit, a German union, on their IT Security Committee as well as the Aircraft Design and Operations Committee. Niklas is also Member of the Aircraft Design and Operations Ctte at IFALPA and Training Licensing and Operations at the European Cockpit Association

Find out more from Signol

These are just our top three takeaways from the discussion, and we’re excited to host future sessions.

Signol’s app and communication service harness behavioral economics, connecting operators to the direct impact of their actions, coaching and empowering them to make measurable fuel and CO2 savings.


The Signol product builds upon the behavioral interventions we tested with Virgin Atlantic Airways, where we saved them $6.1m in fuel costs and 24,000 tons of CO2 in 8 months. What’s more, the captains reported a 15% increase in job satisfaction. Signol’s story began in aviation, but we are now exploring maritime and trucking too.



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About Signol

Signol is a software platform that draws on insights from behavioral economics to encourage employees to make more efficient decisions. Signol provides personalized feedback through multiple communication channels, as well as data analysis for managers. In aviation, Signol aims to use behavioral "nudges" and incentives to reduce pollution and fuel waste and cut operating costs.

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Heads up!
We are hosting a roundtable 19.11.2020 at 5pm GMT on how little changes add up with pilots, economists, union reps and aviation management.
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