Signol Interviews Captains Andy Greig & Al Gallacher, Part 2

Dr Divya Sukumar
In part 1 of the interview, we explored the risks of fuel league tables and an overreliance on statistical recommendations for fuel, Signol’s positive recognition of pilot performance, and how we protect pilot data privacy. In part 2, we dive into the myriad of variables pilots must consider, concerns about management oversight, and how Andy and Al felt using the Signol system - as well as where they see future potential for Signol.

Welcome back to my interview with Andy and Al! In part 1 of the interview, we explored the risks of fuel league tables and an over reliance on statistical recommendations for fuel, Signol’s positive recognition of pilot performance, and how we protect pilot data privacy. In part 2, we dive into the myriad of variables pilots must consider, concerns about management oversight, and how Andy and Al felt using the Signol system - as well as where they see future potential for Signol.

Did you have any concerns about the many factors outside of a pilot's control and how Signol might be unfair somehow?

Al: You give people the chance to give feedback. So, on particular routes like London to Hong Kong, I might not meet my targets because of holding. I think it's an extra 150 miles to get into Hong Kong from 10 miles on the extended centerline. And sometimes you went even further than that. So there’s traffic itself - not being able to get the assigned flight levels. The company would have up to 10 departures from different European ports, meeting in the same piece of sky at the same time, and we’re all looking for the same level. And if you don't get the level, you use more fuel. So, it's factors like that which are out of our control, but I know you already allow me to say, on this particular sector, I couldn't get the level, I held for 15 minutes at Hong Kong because air traffic is incompetent, etc. 

Another example would be that you're not allowed to do single engine taxi in or out at certain airports, but again, you give people the chance to feed that back. If people do feed stuff like that back, is there any way that we can adjust the targets? 

Yes, exactly. We work with the airline on these explicit exclusions. When something's just not possible at a certain airport, we exclude that from the target record, because our targets need to be realistic and achievable. But on top of that, if we're getting a lot of feedback from pilots about one particular location, one particular aircraft, whatever it is, we take that into account to improve the targets that Signol sets.

Andy: Good. I’ve very little to add to what Al has said but they very fact that you filter out the outliers, and you just look at the central body of data, already takes care of most of that. But again, having seen the management side of the interface, it will become very obvious very quickly that for example, Hong Kong is a problem airport, and people tend to use more fuel. In fact, a lot of the airline's existing protocols will factor that in any way, they'll have seen that because they monitor this consistently, and in a lot of depth. They'll see that pilots are adding fuel so they'll know where the problem points are. So, Signol provides an extra layer on top of that, making the whole thing more efficient.

Al: It is statistically done. So for my particular favorite flight, the 251, going into Hong Kong was at the busiest time of the day. The CFP (Computerized Flight Plan) gives an additional (statistical) 5 tons for every HKG arrival; but in my experience I need an extra 3 tons because of extra holding at the 251's arrival time. To carry this extra 3 tons from London takes 2 tons. And so I've got to put five tons on at Heathrow, to give myself an extra three tons, so I don't divert to Macau. And that would show badly in my targets if I could not feed back that this particular flight always requires the extra uplift. 

Another issue I thought about is the company accessing an individual’s data via Signol. And I basically thought it’s not possible due to protocols - this is where my hedgehog thing comes up. Each individual’s data is hardwired to the pilot himself - it’s sacrosanct. And then basically, anything given back to the company is the amalgam of all the data - it’s an overview. So, how is the data sanitized for management?

Ultimately, we are taking the data from the airline. So if the airline really wanted to, they could go through their own data. But when it comes to our Signol dashboard, we don’t provide pilot IDs or names, nor specific times and flight numbers. You just know there’s been a flight between these locations in the past week. So, if management were really keen, they could review their own operational data - it might be a bit of a pain. But they will always have the ability to do that. So as a default, Signol’s management dashboard doesn’t identify individuals. 

Andy: Let's just say management wanted to target pilot X, wanted to get him for whatever reason, perhaps a vendetta, they could use the data to find evidence. But, it's very difficult to do, because managers tend to be time poor, they don't have the time to go into all the data in detail to cross-reference it. But as you said at the outset, they have ownership of all this data in the first place anyway, though maybe in an unfiltered form. If they wanted to find out about pilot X, well, they could look at all his flights - and they can do it that way. Ultimately, they have all their data analyzed, so they could do that job themselves. It just might take a little bit more time. 

Al: It's just up to Signol to understand that. The information that goes back to management, 99.9% of the time, removes the ability for them to really highlight an individual within a group. 

Yes, it's more about statistical trends for management. So it's showing things like x percentage of pilots on this particular sector, or this particular aircraft, implemented this practice. What's novel about the Signol system is that usually, management can look at the data, draw their own conclusions. Perhaps then they make a call, like a phone call and talk to someone in the office. But the Signol feedback that pilots provide - all of that is anonymized and then provided back to management. So, if management sees a particular trend in their dashboard it comes with the pilots’ voice - explaining their reasons.

Andy: It's interesting thinking about introducing Signol to non-unionized parts of the world. And it harks back to what I was saying about western culture. But some airlines are very different, some in the west as well, they’re much more management-driven and with less unionization or a reluctance towards unionization. But then again, if pilots are working for a non-unionized airline, they'll probably be quite aware of the level of scrutiny that they're under already. So it probably actually isn't changing the landscape that much.

Right. We know that some non unionized airlines want to explore rewards or incentives for pilots. 

Al: Yes, it's a dangerous concept when you’re paying somebody to be carbon efficient. We, in aviation, talk about shortcuts. The shortcut we talk about is cutting off a corner with the air traffic control permission to say five to eight miles, so that's 150 kilograms already.  Shortcuts that will be induced with monetary reward is taking less fuel than you actually need, landing with less fuel than you legally should, hoping that nobody looks at it. So I think rewards are a dangerous concept - pushing or exceeding the limits to achieve targets. So I don't push the limits. 

Andy: Yeah. I can probably add to that. So back to the fuel leagues and the fuel graphs that Al was talking about earlier - about all pilots getting a monthly chart. Basically it was just a distribution curve and it showed you where you were amongst the pilots. The company was rightly concerned about those who are taking a lot of fuel; they're taking too much, costing the company a lot of money. But, they were equally concerned, perhaps even more concerned, about people who were actually taking less than zero excess fuel - taking fuel off the operational flight plan in an effort to try and save money, save carbon, or for whatever altruistic reasons. The company was very concerned about that, from a safety perspective. 

Now one of the problems with league tables and competition and financial reward, be it in fuel or flight time limitations or whatever, is that people will push the limits because they're going to get an extra buck in the pocket. That must be frowned upon as it just flies in the face of any kind of safety norms. So actually that's why I think - if there has to be a reward - it has to be done at arm's length. I really like the charitable donations Signol offers and I know one of the airlines was talking about having the pilots’ Benevolent Fund as a recipient. A great idea, but it's at arm's length, so there's no direct benefit to the pilot concerned. I think that is vital.

Al: For me, the only reward is closing the loop and I know Signol does this. The only reward is a feel good factor for me, “I'm making the targets, I'm obviously doing the job correctly.” In military aviation, we debrief every single mission. So somebody stands up and says “You did a good job, you did a bad job, you sharpen up or you’re chopped. Okay?” So we were fairly hard over. If two ex-military guys fly together, like Andy and myself, we'll debrief each other and say what went badly or what was good or whatever. Signol takes the place of that. Signol gives me a target and it's the only time I can think how I did in line flying. 

Typically, I go off, I take flight plan fuel, maybe plus a bit because the weather is not as forecast, I go and do the sector to the best of my ability, and I shut the aeroplane down. And I walk away from it. So I don't know how I've performed against the flight planned fuel. You can take a note of it but a figure comes and you think, “How did I use that fuel?” or “How did I not use that fuel?” But Signol is a self-debrief. The competition is within - “How did I do?” And that is what this app does. I think it's an extension of our professionalism as pilots rather than monetary or reward or whatever. 

Very nicely put. I think you've really covered a lot of the important points that come up with Signol. I've just got a couple more questions. So last summer, you were two of the first pilots to experience Signol, although it was with dummy data. What would you tell other pilots about the Signal approach?

Andy: There is skepticism, initially, because we're not used to the psychological nudges, you know, the behavioral things. But once you get over that, you approach it with an open mind, you think, “Yeah, I'll give it a go.” It's actually quite rewarding. Again, even without any financial reward. I think Al is exactly right. It's a pat on the back for doing your job well, and everybody likes that. And it's not something we get day to day, or very rarely get day to day, in the airline industry - certainly in the airlines I've experienced, and there's been a few of them now. You just don’t get a pat on the back so it's really nice to get that and once you get over initial skepticism, it's a great product.

Al: Yeah, I think the phrase “loneliness of command” is a very important one as well, because when the first officer does a nice sector, a nice landing, you turn around and say “That's fantastic, lovely landing” whatever. Nobody ever says it to the captain, even though we always do a magnificent landing. So again, it's my extension of professionalism-

Andy: Careful, I’ve seen your landings Al.

Al: Especially the one in Munich. 

Yeah, basically, it's educational. It's actually showing people that they are saving the company money. It's improving the professionalism of the individual. But it's the environment as well. And in today's world, the environment is the number one priority, every head of state is talking about it. The airline industry is definitely under the microscope. So the more that we can save on carbon - it’s actually a real saving, as opposed to something we discussed a few weeks ago - carbon offsetting. So carbon offsetting to me is ‘cheating’. Whereas if I could save 100 kilograms every sector, that’s a 100 kilograms, times a factor, of carbon that I'm not throwing out into the atmosphere. I think more and more people are thinking that way. So Signol is a very important tool, as it actually shows you just how you are doing in the area of individual carbon footprint.

Thank you both - that's very nice of you to say. And last question, where do you see the potential for Signol in the future? How else do you think our software can assist pilots in their jobs?

Andy: It was alluded to earlier, I think it can be used as a funnel into training as well, I certainly think it can be used to highlight things that we do well, and that's the whole point of it. But it will also highlight the things that we don't do quite so well. 

Airline training is going more and more towards evidence based training, where we look at what we do well, what we do badly, and then we train to try and bring everything up to a good standard. This is no different. We find out what we do well in terms of our efficient flying, because it's not something that's really taught and in this day and age. Certainly in western airlines the amount of information that pilots get, in terms of technical information and the efficiency of flight, there's less and less of that available. Our manuals are becoming smaller and smaller because “pilots don't need to know that”, but actually pilots do need to know that if they're going to do the job not just to an acceptable standard but to a good and efficient standard. 

So actually, this is another stream of information that can be used to drive us towards flying efficiently, which as Al says, efficiency is everything these days, carbon footprint is everything. So anything we can do to improve that is good. 

Al: Absolutely taking up with what you just said that the LOSA (Line Operation Safety Audit) that I've just been doing, was born in 95 in the University of Texas at Austin. It's basically observers being flies on the wall, watching how crews progress the flight, what threats come into the cockpit, and what errors these people make. We did the first evidence based LOSA and basically using the competencies that IATA have pushed out to see how the crews are actually performing the jobs. Evidence-based observations rather than an impression of how they're doing the jobs. 

And then there's no better evidence than the data that Signol is capable of gathering - you won't be able to do the error detection and management or the threat detection and management. But all the rest of this stuff, it’s an electronic safety audit that you can actually do through Signol. So I think Signol will grow from being a feedback tool for pilots on how they're doing with targets and nudging to a huge tool that can be used to analyze a route, an airport, anything that a company wants you as the suppliers to give them. Evidence based. They don't have the time to do it. So I think there's a huge market out there. 

Awesome. Thank you so much Al and Andy, it’s been a real pleasure!

That concludes my interview with Captains Andy Greig and Al Gallacher. If you’d like to get a view of the Signol app and messaging service that we’ve been discussing, go on and book a short demo with our team here.

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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