Commercial airlines spend a lot of their operating income on fuel, so in order to maximize shareholder value presumably like to use as little fuel as is safely possible.

Are commercial pilots ever given incentives (e.g. financial, performance review) for reducing fuel usage, or given dis-incentives for excessive fuel usage?

  • $\begingroup$ Note that flying for minimum fuel usage isn't usually the most economical way to fly (even less so as fuel prices have come down), so your basic premise is somewhat flawed. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 30 '16 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ See this answer of mine for things to consider: aviation.stackexchange.com/a/1860/69 $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 30 '16 at 16:45

There have been, at various times, and with various carriers, incentive programs set up to encourage pilots to save fuel, improve on-time performance, or some combination of the two.

An example of a fuel-saving incentives program existed at the former Continental Airlines in the early 90s, where pilots would be paid a bonus for using less fuel than planned. The problem was that it wreaked havoc with the schedule itself, as pilots would simply dial back to economy cruise thrust settings, saving fuel but taking noticeably longer to reach their destinations.

An example of an actual-vs-scheduled block incentive program intended to help with on-time performance existed at Silver Airways in their Beech 1900D fleet, whereby pilots would be paid a bonus for each minute they were able to shave off a baseline target time. Ironically enough, it was called the "Green Incentive Program" (don't ask). And it was a can of worms.

I vaguely remember other airlines experimenting with incentives programs relating to fuel consumption and on-time performance, but it's been several years since I left the industry and can't recall any other examples.

In short, yes they do get implemented fairly regularly, but they can be very problematic due to the difficulty in properly designing and managing them (incentivization is a complex problem).

Lastly, since another poster has brought this up, dispatchers do indeed perform most, if not all the flight planning, but the PIC (i.e. Captain of the flight) has the option of overriding most everything the dispatcher plans and arranges for (subject to the carrier's Operational Specifications), including amount of fuel to be carried. Basically, if the Captain decides that the plane is to be filled with as much fuel as it can carry up to MTOW, that's what's going to happen. Might not be the most business-savvy (or even prudent) decision, but it's part of their prerogative as PIC (i.e. the person ultimately responsible for the craft, crew, passengers, and goods onboard).

  • $\begingroup$ Seems a combination of the two types of programs (Save Fuel, and Save Time) would be more ideal. Since fuel presumably costs the company more than a few minutes late (or on time) arrival, it could be weighted to favor fuel savings, but penalize (reduce bonus pay-out) when planes arrive late. This would give pilots the incentive to find fuel saving opportunities, but also not delay arrival too much. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc May 26 '16 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Saving "time" can present problems all of its own, e.g. get to your destination too early and have ATC put you into a hold at (gasp!) low altitude until your landing slot opens up. Ideally you'd want to set up a system to encourage saving fuel while keeping as closely as possible to the planned schedule. From what I've seen the best way to achieve that has less to do with monetary incentives and more to do with optimal flight profile planning, and pilot training, education, advocacy for fuel-efficient operating procedures. $\endgroup$ – habu May 27 '16 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with being "a few minutes" late on each leg is that it adds up throughout the day. You might be, say, 10 minutes late on the first leg of the day, but, if you keep doing that, by the end of the day you'll be running an hour or more behind. At that point passengers have missed connections and have to be rebooked (or put up overnight), your crews might have exceeded duty day limits, you might even have had to pull in reserve aircraft and crews to try and get scheduled flights out on time. The costs (both direct and lost revenue) of chronically delayed operations are no joke. $\endgroup$ – habu May 27 '16 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ @SnakeDoc, the biggest problem is that incentive for either puts that above safety, for which it is almost impossible to come up with reasonable incentive. If you give bonus for being on time, pilots will be more willing to try to salvage poor approaches where go-around would be prudent, because go-around is 10–15 minutes delay. If you give bonus for saving fuel, pilots will be reluctant to take much contingency fuel and then plant themselves in corners when delays happen. But if you try to fix it by giving bonus for not having incidents, pilots will just not report them, which is even worse… $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec May 30 '16 at 5:16

It's seems like you are talking about part 121 operations which is like delta to Chicago and Atlanta and daily passenger operations. The pilots don't really do the weight and balance(fuel required). Dispatchers do the calculations and then it's sent to the pilots and they double check the math.

I'm gonna say they don't because it's already at mins. Then you have other factors like it's cheaper to buy fuel at this airport so I will top of the tanks so you can fly to another airport and back.

  • $\begingroup$ But carrying excess fuel like that makes the plane heavier, which increases fuel consumption. Is this really worthwhile for any but the shortest hops? $\endgroup$ – TonyK May 26 '16 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @TonyK turnaround times are also an issue when it comes to fuelling up. $\endgroup$ – Chris H May 26 '16 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ @TonyK Yes, they do that if the price difference is enough to justify it. It's called tankering. I'm not sure when it's advantageous but I suppose fuel prices can be radically different between different countries for political reasons. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW May 26 '16 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ Fuel prices can be different even within the same country, especially in a place like the US where different states can have different levels of sales tax and/or excise duties, and that's before considering situations where an operator could negotiate discounts with a single fuel provider for bulk purchases at an individual location. $\endgroup$ – habu May 27 '16 at 0:36

After the collapse of the USSR and break-up of Aeroflot into smaller regional entities, there was (reportedly) a widespread practice of such incentives. Or rather, disincentives to 'waste' fuel. Say, a pilot could be penalised for doing such 'unnecessary' thing as a go-around. This was often unofficial or semi-official, but still put pressure on pilots to compromise safety. It is believed such practice may have contributed to some accidents in the 90s.


Incentivising pilots for reducing fuel requests was definitely not the done thing in Australia when I worked at a commercial airline. The responsibility and final decision making of the captain was absolute. For those pilots perceived to load up too much 'granny gas' as it was called, we used to make charts showing them where they were ranked amongst their fleet type colleagues for putting in more fuel than planned. For the 'bottom' say 5-10% of 'overloaders', they were called in for a meeting with the fleet captain, and shown where they sat in the ranking tables. The pilots found the process endlessly fascinating, but both the company and the crew were aware these conversations were not 'directive' in anyway, just a 'hey here's where you sit: do you think our planning parameters are perhaps too tight?' or 'have you just been getting many marginal weather flight rosters lately?'. This was almost always enough to get the outliers to change their ways slightly (we tracked that too). But at no point were they incentivised to reduce their additional fuel requests, and no-one in management would even ask: the tech crew's charge over their aircraft on the day of operation was absolute, and this was understood by both management and the pilots. Everyone felt that this was an important part of a good safety culture, and never under question, even during tough financial times. Had any bozo tried to tell a pilot how to plan their gas, they'd have been given very short shrift by the pilot concerned, but I'm not aware of that even happening, despite the presence of some genuine 'overloaders'!

  • $\begingroup$ I did however find this article recently: an allegation that the pilot cancellled another go-around due to company fuel-saving opportunities: abc.net.au/news/2007-04-12/… $\endgroup$ – Pete855217 Mar 30 '19 at 9:54

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