an airplane in the sky

Going the Extra Mile

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Decades ago, air travel was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Now, it’s an entirely different story: the global airline industry had been steadily increasing the number of scheduled passengers and flights for years (although COVID-19 has disrupted this growth). In 2019, approximately 4.5 billion passengers1 took to the skies in roughly 38.9 million flights.2

With so many people flying every single day, staying on schedule is no small feat, demanding innovation and complex logistical coordination. And as anybody who’s ever taken a plane will know, things don’t always run smoothly. In a typical year, nearly one in five flights is delayed.3 In 2018, delays were estimated to have cost airlines and passengers nearly $30 billion USD.4

Costs, cleanliness, and the challenge of customer satisfaction

One of the largest airlines in Europe came to TDL to help them find the right balance between necessary cost control and a smooth customer experience. At the time (before the COVID-19 pandemic), they were experimenting with modified cleaning schedules for their planes, allowing the airline to decrease flight turnarounds and increase time in-flight. The goal was to reduce delays between flights, and ensure that passengers were not kept waiting at the airport for longer than was absolutely necessary. 

When it came to efficiency and punctuality, the new system was working.  But the airline was concerned about the customer experience, and about the burden on their staff. Litter left over from previous flights became an inconvenience for the next round of passengers, and created extra work for the cabin crew, who were unable to keep up with cleaning on top of their other responsibilities. 

The airline didn’t want to revert back to the old system: doing so would increase flight turnaround times and inflate costs for passengers. So, they approached TDL to come up with a behavioral solution. 

a man wearing a blue airplane uniform

Taking a global approach

Objectively speaking, it’s not hard to make sure your trash is properly disposed of when you’re on a plane. Crew members come around to collect garbage during the flight, and after you disembark, it’s likely you won’t have to go far to find a trash can. So why is so much litter left behind on planes?

To understand the reasons why passengers were not disposing of their garbage properly, we went through an in-depth research process, reviewing the literature, interviewing cabin crew and members of the airline’s Consumer Insights team, and analyzing journey data provided by the carrier. 

Based on this research phase, we came up with some simple changes to the scripts used to guide passenger interactions and PA announcements. The new messaging drew from the COM-B framework of behavior change to promote proper garbage disposal — without disrupting the passenger experience, creating extra work for staff, or interfering with flight logistics.

Business or leisure?

Many past campaigns aiming to reduce littering behavior have focused on directly changing that behavior, aiming to inspire a greater sense of responsibility or awareness of social norms. But decisions aren’t made in a vacuum: in order to change behavior, we need to consider take a more holistic view, considering the entire context. 

In this case, taking a wider view made it clear that this problem wasn’t just about individual passengers and how they perceived messaging about litter; it was about how passengers perceived their environment as a whole.

Through stakeholders interviews and analysis of airline data, we learned that the way passengers treat their environment is greatly impacted by the type of trip they are taking. The data showed that a large percentage of litter was left by vacationers, rather than people flying for business. 

The difference came down to one thing: a sense of entitlement. Those traveling for leisure felt more entitled to the support of the cabin crew in cleaning up after them, while those traveling for work tended to see the cabin crew as facilitators of their business plans.

In other words, the same passenger can behave very differently depending on the context in which they are traveling. This insight suggested that rather than directly imploring customers to change their behavior, it would be worthwhile to take a more holistic approach, trying to shift the way passengers thought about the experience of flying itself. 

clouds seen from an airplane window

With this in mind, we modified the scripts used by cabin crew during announcements. Our goal was to reframe the way people saw the staff on their flight, emphasizing that their role was to provide a better experience for everyone: to ensure passenger safety and arrival at their destination. Testing found that messages along these lines significantly reduced the intent to litter.

Traveling clean

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, airlines have intensified their cleaning measures in order to protect passengers and crew. But the behavioral dynamics underlying our work on this project still apply. In plane cabins and beyond, low-cost nudges like the one we designed can go a long way to create a safer, more comfortable customer experience, all through a simple reframe.


  1. Statista. (2022, August 25). Global air traffic - scheduled passengers 2004-2022.
  2. Statista. (2022a, June 13). Global air traffic - number of flights 2004-2022.
  3. TransStats. (n.d.). On-Time Performance - Reporting Operating Carrier Flight Delays. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 
  4. Airlines for America. (n.d.). U.S. Passenger Carrier Delay Costs.

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