PICTURE: Southwest launches 737-300 cockpit upgrade with Boeing and GE

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Southwest Airlines has awarded GE a $40 million contract to modify Boeing 737-300 aircraft with large area display suites to allow for the operation of required navigation performance procedures.

RNP, which relies on satellite-based navigation instead of ground-based systems, allows aircraft to fly along a precise, pre-defined path saving both time and fuel.

In addition to GPS and enhanced flight management systems (FMS), onboard equipment for RNP generally includes displays that allow pilots to monitor navigation performance.

Large area displays will be installed in up to 150 classic aircraft, with delivery starting in early 2011. The carrier's 737-300's will conduct RNP operations once the displays are integrated with the FMS upgrades Southwest awarded to GE last year.

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 © General Electric

Boeing will be the lead integrator for a larger programme to upgrade Southwest's Boeing 737-300s and -700s. The integrated cockpit displays will feature primary flight displays, standby instrument and control panels. Primary flight displays, which have been designed to mimic the appearance of the next generation 737 cockpit, have 15.4-inch screen displays with dual-channel display architecture.

Southwest has selected Boeing to oversee the design, installation and integration of hardware and software from suppliers including GE Aviation, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. The airframer will also manage flight testing and certification of the cockpit upgrades.

While some engineering has begun, other work will start in the second quarter of 2009, with upgrades expected to be complete in 2013, a Boeing spokesman says, adding he expects to achieve FAA certification for an amended type certificate in 2010.

"The 737-300 enhancements will also position Southwest for additional features -- currently under development -- that will support future airspace requirements," Boeing says in a statement.

Boeing's spokesman expects other carriers to consider similar upgrades.

"As Southwest is a leader in the low-cost model, I think this is something other airlines will be looking at," he says, declining to speculate on future customers.

The integrated large area display suite and FMS controls allow the aircraft track to an accuracy of 32.81ft (10 meters) and the time of arrival to within 10 seconds to any point in the flight plan.

The displays will also align -300 and -700 flight decks, creating commonality and allowing -300s to operate in the same preferred airspace as newer -700s.

Southwest is investing $175 million during a six-year period to implement RNP procedures on classic and next generation aircraft.

RNP operations by Southwest on certain routes are scheduled to begin in the fourth quarter of 2009, ramping up system-wide through 2013, in a move that CEO Gary Kelly says he believes could save "tens of millions annually".