Southwest Airlines is one of American business’ great success stories of the past twenty years. From its origins as a dinky carrier (whose flight attendants wore fabulously groovy hot pants, by the way) that served a few Texas cities in the 1970s, Southwest is now the largest airline in the US based on domestic passengers carried.
First known and sniffed at as a “discount” carrier, Southwest built its business based on a strategies that included flying out of underserved and cost effective airports like Fort Lauderdale and and Ontario, CA. Its long standing policy of purchasing only one model of Boeing aircraft kept maintenance costs down. Southwest’s fleet flew routes that maximized fuel performance while keeping their crisp schedules, and the initiatives like the use of Pratt and Whitney’s Ecopower water pressure water system kept engine turbine blades clean and clipped fuel waste by almost 2%.
While its competitors whined that the Dallas based airline was trying to put them out of business, Southwest, like its fellow carriers JetBlue and Virgin America, oddly enough became a relatively luxurious airline with its wide seats, snacks, and cheerful service, when compared to the cramped quarters and surly flight attendents that diminished the reputation US legacy carriers. Now Southwest has given us another reason for cheer with a new energy efficiency program that focuses on its planes’ landings.
Southwest recently implemented an enhanced landing system at 11 airports. Called the Required Navigation Performance (RNP) program, both dispatchers and pilots use technologies including global positioning systems (GPS) and what Southwest describes as Primary Flight Display/Navigation Display (PFD/ND) procedures that both save fuel and money. In laypersons’ speak, these automated systems allow pilots to fly specially designed flight landing paths. Not only could this switch lead to enhanced safety, but it could save Southwest up to US$60 million a year once the program is adopted at all of its airports. The airline has trained about 6000 pilots on the new initiative, and eventually its entire fleet will boast the new technology suite.
For those of us who only know aviation from a passenger’s standpoint, all these changes may appear to be a no-brainer. But believe it or not, GPS is a new change for air traffic control. Air traffic control still relies on radar and other technologies with acronyms like STCA, MSAW, SYSCO, and APW that all work for a reason, but really cannot do anything for fuel savings.
Some will sniff at this change, and wonder what the big deal is since the airline industry is still a huge consumer of fuel, with the results that planes are still huge emitters of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The airlines and companies that build their fleets are aware of this, however, and between improved building materials and more fuel saving measures like that of Southwest’s, this sector will be a driver, not just a passive beneficiary, of technologies that will save fuel, lighten our wallets, and help save our planet.