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Southwest Airlines’ Cabin Experience Evolves in a Sustainable Direction

RP Siegel | Thursday January 19th, 2012 | 3 Comments

Long known as a company not afraid to think out of the box, Southwest Airlines, one of the most successful airlines operating today, is stepping out ahead of pack again by retrofitting its aircraft cabins with sustainable materials that will also reduce fuel costs by cutting weight.

The $60 million “cabin experience” overhaul, which is expected to be completed in 2013, will begin in March, with a total of 372 of the company’s 737-700s scheduled to receive the new Evolve interior.

The major elements of the new interior are as follows:

  • New seats that will be more durable and six pounds lighter. Keeping in mind that everything that goes up, requires fuel to do so, explains how this alone will save the company $10 million in annual fuel costs.
  • Seat covers made from recycled leather, which is lightweight, abrasion resistant and costs less.
  • Seat frames will be recycled, which will save approximately $50 million
  • Sustainable carpeting from Interface, which is designed to be replaceable in sections and is made using a closed loop recycling process
  • Life vest pouches will be a pound lighter and take up less room under the seat
  • Seat arms, tray tables and latches will be made from aluminum instead of plastic, saving additional weight
  • Bulkhead wind screens will be made more durable reducing replacement rate

Southwest’s Green Airplane program has been in testing since 2009.

According to the company’s press release, the new interior was “inspired by Southwest’s past with a nod to the airline’s future, the cabin refresh features recyclable carpet, a brighter color-scheme, and a more durable, eco-friendly, and comfortable low-profile seat.”

At the same time, the cabin makeover increases revenue potential by increasing seating capacity from 137 to 143 without compromising passenger comfort. This is a good example of a triple bottom line accomplishment.

“We are preparing now for our next 40 years with a fleet modernization plan that includes the new interior, the Boeing 737-800 which is scheduled to come online beginning in March this year, and the 737 MAX, which is expected to join the Southwest fleet in 2017,” Bob Jordan, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, said.

The airline also expects to convert the AirTran fleet of Boeing 700s and 717s as they are converted to the Southwest brand.

The new interior seating has been designed to be more ergonomic and more comfortable, with increased knee room and more room under the seats for luggage.

This is another step in Southwest’s sustainability journey. Last year they invested $175 million to upgrade the air traffic control systems at three airports to the NextGen system, which they expect will pay for itself in two years with fuel savings as incoming flights utilize the more efficient continuous descent approaches.

Whether these types of improvements are enough to make air travel truly sustainable remains to be seen. But even if these aren’t yet steps in what will ultimately be the right direction, then they are at least moving in the wrong direction more slowly than before. And that is still important. It at least allows us to remain operational while buying some additional time to evolve.

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[Image credit:xplan303ex:Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Holly_burns

    I enjoyed reading this article and would like to talk with Mr. Siegel about attending a Corporate Sustainability Conference March 18-20, 2012 at The Greenbrier Resort.  After reviewing Triple Pundit’s website I have learned a lot more about the world of sustainability.  I look forward to hearing from you and have a good evening!

    Holly Burns
    holly_burns@greenbrier.com

  • Nicholemcampbell

    Awesome my favorite airline and now even better.

  • http://twitter.com/KarLivingston Karen Livingston

    Hey Southwest Lovers! Goba is
    giving away a $500 Southwest gift card to one user in February just because we
    love Southwest! Check it out: goba.co/xPAEXF