At Signol, we offer an app and communication service that nudges pilots to cut fuel waste when it’s possible and safe. As we launch Signol for airline captains around the world, we are engaging with a number of pilot unions. To address some of the common questions that come up about Signol, I sat down with two experienced airline captains: Andy Greig and Al Gallacher.
In the first part of our interview, we take a look at their extensive experience in the aviation industry, the types of fuel initiatives they’ve experienced - both good and bad - at airlines, and their initial impressions of Signol:
Hi Andy, hi Al, thank you for joining us. Shall we start with introducing your backgrounds?
Al: Sure, so I did 20 years in the Royal Air Force (RAF), then 23 years with an Asia based passenger airline. At the RAF, I flew the Jaguar and Tornado in reconnaissance roles and I was an instructor - teaching qualified Jaguar pilots to become qualified weapons instructors. I then went to the US and flew the F4 with them - I was an instructor pilot and fighter weapons school air combat instructor. And basically my ground duties in the RAF were safety oriented, and latterly procurement. I could also say I was in airfield management but that was a jolly at the end of my 20 years.
With the airline, I flew the 747 Classic and 777 as well as the Airbus A340 and 330. I spent 16 years as a captain, including 3 years on the Fatigue Risk Management Committee, and retired at the tender age of 61. Since then, I've been consulting on fatigue risk management and LOSA (Line Operation Safety Audit). It’s been 18 months with Signol which I'm enjoying very much.
Andy: Okay, how do I follow that long and illustrious career… Mine is similar in some ways as I started off in the Royal Air Force. I flew the Tornado, instructed on the Tucano, as a qualified flying instructor, and flew the Hawk latterly. Then I left the Air Force and joined the airlines, which I've been doing for 20 years now. I flew the Boeing 757 initially, then the 747, and then 737, and if there's a series there, I’m not planning to fly the 727!
I flew with the same Asia-based airline as well. In fact, I flew with Al on the 747 Classic many moons ago. I think he'd been in the left seat for quite a while, and I was very green in the right seat. But I got my first command there, it must have been 15 years ago now.
I left long haul about five years ago and began flying short haul, based in the UK. My interests have been very much safety-focused throughout. I've got a master's degree in Aviation Safety Management, my dissertation was in the reporting - or under-reporting - of fatigue and the reasons why that happens. I also spent quite a lot of time on the Fatigue Risk Management Committee at my old airline.
I also spent 10 years or so in fairly senior positions in the Pilots’ Association, representing pilots, seeing things from both sides - both the pilots and the management - and seeing how pilots like to be managed, seeing how pilots don't like to be managed and what gets their backs up. That puts me in quite a good position to be able to liaise with unions and bring out the good points, and resolve any reservations, with regard to Signol.
Al: And following on from that, I should emphasize my fatigue risk management was on behalf of the European Union for my old airline, not from the management side.
Andy: Right, it wasn't on the management side for myself either!
Very, very impressive careers. And I actually didn't know that you had flown together.
Al: Yeah, it was a cool flight. We actually put out a mayday at one point. So it's a memorable flight.
Interesting, and during your careers, have you experienced any tools or approaches for improving pilots’ fuel efficiency? What worked or didn’t work about them?
Andy: I’ll start off, if you like, I’ve seen various things across the full spectrum really. Fuel leagues were a very crude way of doing it, where all the pilots typically on a fleet, or potentially within an airline, are ranked, and that tries to harness the competitive urge between pilots to do their best and use less fuel. It's a tool for management, a very crude tool, for management to see who is costing the most in terms of fuel, and so they can then come down with a “word in the ear” or perhaps even more punitive ways of dealing with it. It has big issues. And it's been banned by several aviation authorities around the world, because it risks driving people into making unsafe decisions and carrying less fuel than they would do otherwise.
So what we need to do really is have a more balanced approach between driving pilots to take less excess fuel than they might otherwise do, and being commercially efficient. At the moment there's a drive towards performance- and data-based behavior. So, with a lot of statistics based on the advent of big data, we're now able to harness tools where we can see what a particular fight has used in the past, be it last week, last month, or last year, and say to pilots, “Well, this is what people have historically taken”, and try to nudge them into the direction of taking a little bit less.
Statistics do have problems though, and it's one of my big bugbears that we rely almost too heavily on statistics, which look at the broad brush approach. They will look over a large database of flights and they may not pick up the nuances or the context of one particular flight, and this is where it can fall down. We can have situations where you take too little fuel in the circumstances, obviously this has a very big knock on effect on safety. Pilots have to be given the discretion to act in the interest of the safety of the aircraft they are legally responsible for. So, they have that overriding legal obligation. If too much discretion is taken away from the pilots then they feel undervalued and they can't exercise their professional discretion.
Al: And following on from that, I saw a bit of a cycle. When I was a first officer, we were encouraged not to take any extra fuel on top of the CFP (Computerized Flight Plan) or OFP (Operational Flight Plan). And I was criticized many times for saying “I think we should be taking another two tons because of x”.The most memorable occasion was when I suggested extra fuel for CAT2 weather at Gatwick. The request was denied and we ran a tad short of fuel as everyone was holding - due to CAT2 approaches! So in my early days in the company, it was definitely operations department driven - “You shall take this fuel and no more and we have thought of everything”. That was the 80s into the 90s.
They then went through a bit of a metamorphosis where it was more almost a carrot - not unpeeled yet - but it was a carrot that was, you know, this is what the flight plan says based on statistics, but you have your discretion to add fuel on. And there was a palpable relief among the captains, that they could actually exercise their discretion. So most people went with the recommended fuel, some people put two tons on every single time, most didn't, and some looked at the actual situations.
So it's more of a carrot, then things went a little bit backwards, because we started getting a league table and we definitely got individual emails every month on where we were in the league. I don't think the league tables are published. But, you definitely knew if you're near the top (Company good!), or you're below the cut (Company bad!). So I didn't like that at all, because that's a blind overview of what everybody's doing. When I'm going into London, arriving at six o'clock in the morning, I know I'm going to be in the hold for 25 - 30 minutes. So I put two tons on for the hold, so I've got enough fuel; however, I use a ton to carry the fuel to destination so I have to add 3 tons! But that puts me near the bottom of the table as they don't look at how much fuel you actually land with at the end of the sector.
So, the stick didn't work for me, because I always put on the fuel that I thought I needed. I know there are some people who didn't, and they fell foul of the system, because they want to be near the top. But I will give you an example of the full carrot way of doing it: There was a very popular fleet manager who said, “Look, if all you can do is save 100 kilograms per sector, then you are doing a very good job.” That's all he said. So every single sector, you'd hear somebody in the crew say, “I was saving 100 for Gus today”. And there was humor and there was leadership from that particular individual.
So I saw the stick - didn't like the stick at all. And I saw the carrot and I thought the carrot worked very nicely indeed. Competition is not good in aviation. There are too many competitions going on. From on time performance to fuel league tables, and Andy, in your low cost carrier system, you'll see there's an awful lot more than we were subject to in long haul. Anytime I can remove a competition from the system, I will take that opportunity. That's where the carrot comes in. The only competition is internal. Am I doing a good job? Yes or no? If it’s a no, how can I improve?
Very insightful. We've heard about these kinds of systems at airlines we’ve spoken to. Then, of course, you came across Signol. So what were some of your initial concerns when you first heard about Signol? And as you became more familiar, how did those concerns get resolved?
Andy: I have to say I was probably a little bit skeptical to start with - knowing that pilots are driven by data and hard facts. It's a bit of a jump, a leap of faith, to accept that behavioral nudges can work. But actually, borne out by the Virgin Atlantic study, there are benefits from a mental health perspective - pilots are suddenly given a little bit more credit for what they're doing, and they're being valued in their decision making. It's very unusual for pilots to get a pat on the back for doing their job. Basically, you go to work, you do your job, and if you get it wrong, you get told about it in no uncertain terms. But if you do the job well, there's no pat on the back. It's just taken as read.
So with Signol, it's a real step change for the airline industry. Now, I would say at the outset, I'm used to a Western culture within airlines, and I do know there are very many differences across the world in different cultures in the way they look at things. But I was very, very impressed with Signol.
Personal data can be one of the very big issues and I think always will be when you're dealing with unions. Unions were originally against cockpit voice recording, even though they have proven benefits in the field of accident investigation. They're also, again, I think I'm right in saying, still successfully arguing against flightdeck cameras, because again, things are being recorded all the time and can be used. And the fear really is driven by the fact that all this data has been recorded, and it may be for the best possible reasons. But with the benefit of hindsight, looking back retrospectively, it may be taken out of context. So it may be used for punitive reasons, it may be for reprimand, or ultimately, it could be used in a court of law. And that then opens up a huge Pandora's box of issues. And it basically then means that the pilots think they're always being watched. So everything they have to do is entirely above board.
Now I'm not saying everything is not above board. But there's a lot of conversation that goes on in quiet periods that maybe you don't want in the public domain. When you've got the confinements of a locked (flight-deck) door, you've got a confined space, where you have a degree of confidentiality, and if that confidentiality is then taken away - then anything can be taken out of context; potentially, that works against safety. And so there's a big problem that unions have with allowing that encroachment into flight-deck data.
So that is one of the challenges Signol has had to overcome in terms of confidentiality and keeping personal data confidential and away from the management side of the Signol software database.
Al: I realized that every piece of data that Signol uses is in the company domain anyway, because it is only the data that is gathered through FDAP (Flight Data Analysis Programmes) and other means that we get sight of. To me, you've got the mothership, which is the company, they download into Signol. It's a bit like a pincushion or a hedgehog - all the data is stored in a secure server and there's a straw that comes out to each individual pilot. That is something that cannot be broken into. The data can never be cross-referred to by anybody else. Because once the data goes down that structure, to the pilot, the door’s closed, and it never comes back out to the management. The management already has all the raw data and they get a sanitized version of overall average data. But they'll never see what Signol sends out to a pilot. They only see what Signol decides to send back to the company, which is totally anonymized. And I think that's a hugely important point.
How would it work if there was an incident or accident post a captain receiving his Signol data? Would the courts be able to subpoena the data that you have sent out to them?
Legally, if a court required us to share Signol’s feedback to a particular pilot, then I believe we would be obliged to share that information with the court. This would be specified in our contracts with the airline. Ultimately, the airline owns the data and the courts are likely to want the original data directly from the airline.
Andy: It's hard to see how any letters or communications from Signol could then have contributed in a material way to an accident. I’m struggling to think of any way.
Al: For instance, we tell a captain “Your target for this month is to do single engine taxi 40% of the time” and the very next flight after he sees that, he goes off the taxiway because he's not used to doing single engine taxis. Just something off the top of my head.
Andy: Basically the default in my current company is we always use single engine taxi. So if a pilot is doing that, and if he's been trained, then he should be able to do it competently. Perhaps this scenario presents an opportunity to highlight shortcomings in existing training, the pilot could say in a confidential way “I don't want to use single engine taxi because I don't feel competent or confident about doing it.” Feedback back into the Signol system.
Yeah, exactly. I think you've touched upon the precautions we take. In all of our communications and throughout the web app, we always remind pilots that safety is number one, that they have complete professional discretion and authority - that we’re never telling them what to do or when to do it. What’s more, we work with each airline to choose the behaviors, the practices to target. So the practices should really be something that the airline has provided training for - a standard operating practice. We're not introducing something brand new.
And finally, as you said Andy, there’s the opportunity for pilots to provide feedback when they’re not comfortable doing something. Of course they don't have to submit feedback, but whenever they do it helps Signol improve the system.
…And that’s a wrap on part 1 of my interview with Andy and Al! We’ll be publishing part 2 in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for further discussion about factors outside of a pilot’s control, the dangers of rewarding pilots for cutting fuel, and Andy and Al’s personal experience of testing out Signol.
In the meantime, are you keen to uncover more about Signol? Then, get in touch with our team here.
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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.