Delegating Control: Challenges to Autonomy – Why Fuel Efficiency Measures Are Resisted

Occupational groups deemed ‘professions’ are characterised as being of high status, having significant responsibilities associated with their work and having high levels of autonomy in how they do their work. It is widely understood that the loss of autonomy undermines self-esteem and, hence, is a stressor. In this section, I want to consider autonomy from Hodson’s perspective. Delegation of authority, as discussed earlier, is an essential requirement in all organisations. What Hodson suggested was that having delegated responsibility to an individual, management must be careful when questioning the subsequent judgement of that individual. Delegation implies trust whereas a constant questioning of decisions suggests the opposite. A classic example would be the use of the commander’s discretion to extend the duty period in order to finish a task. Company procedures state that, as the name implies, discretion is for the commander of the aircraft to apply based on an assessment of operational need and crew capability. It is not unknown for a commander to choose not to operate into discretion for perfectly legitimate reasons only to have the decision challenged. Equally, the industry has emphasised the importance of discontinuing the approach and initiating a ‘go around’ if the criteria for a safe landing are not met. A ‘go around’ and the subsequent additional flight time to repeat the approach is a cost, in terms of fuel, and possibly a source of inconvenience to passengers. Although the situation is changing, it is still possible to find situations where a company may advocate the safest approach but are clearly unhappy if a pilot complies with the requirement. In the previous section, we looked at employee absenteeism, and I said that one reason for being absent is ill health. In Chapter 4, we looked at fatigue, and most airlines have a procedure for reporting unfit for duty if the pilot considers themselves to be too fatigued. In a 2018 study, the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB, 2019) surveyed 625 pilots about their experiences of fatigue and perceptions of the culture in their organisations. Of this sample, 277 pilots reported that they had removed themselves from duty in the previous 12 months because of fatigue. Even though they had used the extant company process, 57.1% claimed that their action had left a negative impression with the management. These contradictions between the espoused positions and enacted realities generate resistance behaviours. Hodson observed that workers create independent meaning systems and develop their views of processes and how' they should be conducted. In short, people start to ‘do their own thing’. They take pride in finding solutions to problems despite what the company wants. Fuel efficiency is an area where we can see these forces at work.

Fuel costs comprised 23.5% of airline operating costs in 2018 (IATA). Of course, fuel costs are linked to the price of oil, which reflects both production output and global security issues. Fuel efficiency addresses the issue of economic reward, but one component of efficiency is the performance of the crew, a potential risk. In terms of challenges to autonomy, the commander is responsible for the final fuel uplift decision. Airlines use sophisticated programmes to calculate fuel requirements and policies usually state that if a commander takes the fuel suggested by the flight plan then the company accepts responsibility for any fuel-related outcomes. However, commanders retain the right to adjust the fuel taken. Most airlines have tools for monitoring fuel uplifts by individual pilots, and many have mechanisms for feeding back to pilots where uplift is considered excessive. Pilots can affect fuel efficiency by adopting specific procedures and through the general operation of the aircraft. In part, the willingness to adopt fuel efficiency measures reflects aspects of pilots’ morale and attitudes towards the company.

Vogel (2014) looked at a range of fuel efficiency measures and investigated the rate of uptake and also the perception of workload as measured by the NASA task load index. Table 9.2 shows the adoption of a range of measures while Figure 9.5 shows the subjective assessment of workload for the two pilots in the different roles of pilot flying and pilot monitoring. The perceived workload by the phase of flight shows a relationship with fuel efficiency measures. Single-engine taxi out is the most obvious measure that appears to be discarded because of the high workload. More than one-third of pilots reported performance impairments resulting from the application of fuel-saving techniques, and 2% (n= 19) reported involvement in an accident or serious incident. Trying to satisfy a management policy creates an apparent operational risk.


Adoption of Fuel Efficiency Measures

Fuel-Efficient Policy






Single-engine taxi out


Single-engine taxi in


Adherence to optimum flight levels


Flaps 3/25 landing


Idle reverse


Source: After Vogel (2014).

Workload (From Vogel. 2014)

FIGURE 9.5 Workload (From Vogel. 2014).

Fuel efficiency sits at the intersection of management activity aimed at increasing returns and pilot perceptions of effort, safety and net benefit. The increased workload is a safety risk but also represents a discretionary commitment to the task. To meet the requirement to be more fuel-efficient, the crew could be thought of as having to sacrifice operational margins. The question becomes one of who benefits the most? In the context of this section, although the responsibility has been delegated to the commander of the aircraft for decisions about fuel, the requirement to satisfy an efficiency target is now a constraint: the two policies are contradictory. Having delegated the responsibility for safety to the operating crew, their perception of priorities - safety first - is undermined by demand for efficiency. The problem is exacerbated by the management responses to excessive fuel uplift. In some airlines, the judgement of pilots who take more than the flight plan fuel is sometimes questioned.

Gosnell et al. (2019) addressed the pilot’s adoption of fuel efficiency policies from a behavioural economics perspective. All 335 captains in an airline were informed of a study being implemented to explore fuel efficiency, but only some of them were to be assigned to specific intervention groups. Interestingly, all captains improved their performance during the study period irrespective of the treatment group they had been assigned to. Giving feedback on recent performance had a moderate effect on efficiency, but setting personal targets for captains was more beneficial. After the study concluded, captains said that they would value more information about their individual performance. In the broader context of competence development, these comments from pilots point to opportunities to shape behaviour.

Hodson’s concept of denial of autonomy highlights the tension identified by Anderson when she discussed the asymmetries of power. The company has delegated authority for decision-making but retained the right to chastise if the operational goal is not always compatible with the commercial goal. If we stay with fuel management, unforeseen circumstances have resulted in fuel-related accidents and incidents, and here, we only have to think back to the Portland, Oregon, accident that led up to CRM in the first place. The probability of fuel becoming critical is often a function of sector length and airspace characteristics. The need to avoid weather or cope with arbitrary АТС interventions can affect the track miles flown and, thus, the fuel consumed. Whereas a fuel policy is often a fixed point, actual fuel consumption, and therefore the reserves required, is a variable. Ergodicity suggests that a failure to recognise this fact will result in failure.

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