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When it comes to their preparations for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, the headline of a recent MarketWatch story summarizes the situation, Airlines Uneasy Over Costly Bid to Replace Radar, and the subhead explains why: Slow US moves to satellite plan have carriers questioning their investment. And then there’s Southwest, the nation’s most consistently successful airline.
As we reported earlier this year, Southwest Airlines stepped up to one component of the NextGen challenge and invested four years and, according to the MarketWatch story, $175 million to equip its 345 Boeing 737-700s for required navigation performance (RNP) and train the crews who fly them. The news focused on results, increased safety and fuel economy, an estimated $16 million a year based on RNP approaches at 11 of its destinations, and $60 million saved when RNP approaches feed all of them.
Curious about motive, we contacted Southwest, which led to a genial, half-hour conversation with Mike Van de Ven, executive vice president and chief operating officer. A member of the Southwest family since 1993, he’s worked his way up in the areas now his responsibility including operations, planning, analysis, and finance. “We’ve seen a nice return on our fuel burn estimates by flying as many RNP approaches as possible,” he said.
Southwest based its RNP return on a “3-mile track savings on our arrivals and departures,” he continued. With NextGen in its infancy, “we thought [the 3-mile metric] would be fairly conservative.” Depending on fuel prices, “we’ll probably need about five years to get the return out of that, assuming you can get the RNP procedures at all these airports.”
Bringing RNP approach capabilities to its 737-700 fleet was part of a larger cockpit enhancement program that included primary flight display/navigational display, GPS, dual flight management computers, auto throttles, and other components that brought the “cockpit automation up to par,” said Van de Ven. Bringing the rest of its fleet, roughly 200 older 737s, up to par is now in the planning and design stage, but before pulling the trigger, “we’re watching the air traffic control and RNP benefits play out.”
Given the scope of the Southwest cockpit upgrade, said Van de Ven, in regards to RNP and NextGen, “we weren’t starting from the same spot as a lot of other carriers. [It was] probably the biggest upgrades we’ve done, in terms of how we fly the airplanes, in the last 10 or 15 years…and it would be hard to parse RNP out of that.” Adding RNP to the airline’s operating specifications and training its pilots was part of the upgrade. “We tried to sync up the equipage on the airplanes with the phase of training with the ops spec approval so that once we were approved to fly the ops spec, that we were able to do that with the [NextGen] fleet,” said Van de Ven. “We started that January 11, 2011.”
Calling RNP “a foundational pillar of the next generation air traffic control system,” it is a logical first step because it provides an immediate return. NextGen, said Van de Ven, “is a complex project. It has equipage ramifications, training ramifications, design ramifications, and political ramifications. No question, it’s a difficult project for the FAA to manage. We’re trying to be the best partner with them as we can and work with them in any way we can to help make sure that these procedures are rolled out, that they are effective, and that we’re getting benefit from them.”
Teams as Southwest are looking at other NextGen components, such as ADS-B and data communication, but “we’d like to see the benefits of RNP play out more fully across the air traffic control system before we make further commitments and investments in additional NextGen technology.” Once RNP approaches lead to the majority of its destinations, “and air traffic controllers say yes as many times as they can when an RNP route is available…we can see the industry to begin to gain momentum on that, I think you’ll have people rushing to do all the other things needed to roll out the next generation air traffic control system.”
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