Southwest Offers NextGen Lesson With RNP

By Scott Spangler on June 20th, 2011

Equip-Levels_thumb1Reading government documents isn’t very much fun sometimes, but it often reveals informative tidbits, such as this table found on page 43 of the FAA’s NextGen Implementation Plan of March 2011.

It’s clear that GA is way behind the airlines when it comes to preparing for the Next Generation Air Transportation system, and the airlines aren’t doing that great either, when you consider the 2020 deadline will be here faster than most people appreciate.

Yeah, the whole NextGen project isn’t perfect, it’s not on time or budget, and our elected officials can’t agree on or pass the FAA appropriation let alone anything else. Despite it all, NextGen is making progress, and the FAA has made it clear that in the new world, those best equipped for NextGen will be served first. GA operators who procrastinate will pay a premium if they wait until the deadline to think about NextGen upgrades.

This is especially true for operators who fly GA instead of the airlines. Yes, I know, it is expensive, but what in aviation isn’t? So in taking the first step toward  NextGen, take a lesson from Southwest Airlines, which earlier this year finished a four-year upgrade of its 737-700 fleet of 345 airplanes with required navigation performance (RNP) approaches. Fuel savings is the primary return: an estimated $16 million a year based on 11 airports that now have RNP procedures and $60 million when all of Southwest’s destinations are so served.

Southwest’s RNP upgrade was part of a larger cockpit improvement program, said COO Mike Van de Ven. It brought the airplanes up to speed with primary flight and navigation displays, GPS, auto throttles, among other things, and it included adding these capabilities to the airline’s operational specifications and training pilots to use them.

RNP was a benefit of this larger program that not only changed how Southwest flew the airplanes now, it laid the foundation for NextGen. The goal is, Van de Ven said, “to make sure that we’re using the most optimal equipage and procedures that we can to derive the most benefit out of it.”

Apch TypesRight now that benefit is fuel savings. Southwest’s primary metric on the return on RNP was saving 3 track miles on its arrivals and departures. It started RNP ops at 11 airports on January 11, 2011, and already “we’ve seen a nice return on our fuel burn.”

Being conservative, Southwest figured RNP would need five years to pay for itself. Naturally, that depends on the price of fuel and the speed at which the FAA adds RNP procedures at Southwest’s destinations.

The lesson for GA, obviously, is to start NextGen prep with a system that provides an immediate return. Van de Ven calls RNP “a foundational pillar of the next generation air traffic control system.” Reduced track miles isn’t the only way to save. “If you can get from altitude down to the concrete without diving and driving, just coast it down [in a continuous descent], those are exceptional ways to save fuel.”

But that won’t happen until the FAA increases the number of such approaches. “It is a complex project,” he continues. “It has equipage ramifications, training ramifications, design ramifications, political ramifications; it’s a difficult project for the FAA to manage. No question. 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.”

When it comes to upgrading the rest of its fleet, roughly 200 older 737s, and other NextGen components like ADS-B and data comm, “we’d like to  see the benefits of RNP play out more fully across the air traffic control system before we are willing to make further commitments and investments in additional NextGen technology.” But that doesn’t mean Southwest is sitting on its hands. Dedicated teams are always looking at and evaluating different options and alternatives. That might be another lesson for GA as well. – Scott Spangler

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