RNP proving to be time-consuming for Southwest

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As Southwest Airlines moves ahead with plans to implement new fuel-saving navigation procedures, the airline is finding the process challenging.

The low-cost carrier announced last year that it would invest $175 million during the next six years to implement required navigation performance (RNP) procedures at the 64 airports it serves after receiving FAA approval to conduct such operations.

"Our RNP program is, without a doubt, the most complicated and time-consuming project that Southwest has ever embarked upon. Southwest Airlines has learned that it's difficult, complicated, and expensive to implement RNP," carrier senior director of flight operations Jeff Martin said in his written testimony to a 29 July US House Aviation Subcommittee hearing.

Each of Southwest's more than 500 aircraft require some type of modification to conduct RNP procedures, which has "consumed" more than 80% of the airline's NextGen budget, Martin said during the hearing.

Earlier this month, the Dallas-based operator completed autothrottles and vertical navigation (VNAV) modifications on its fleet, enabling pilots to fly more precise speeds and utilise optimum descent profiles.

Nearly 300 of the airline's Boeing 737-700 aircraft are RNP-capable today, he says.

In addition, Southwest plans to retrofit its remaining 215 737-300 aircraft with GPS receivers, software upgrades and necessary avionics in the next four years to fly more direct and efficient RNP procedures, Martin says.

As the airline addresses equipage issues, Southwest has also delved into timely pilot training.

Developing a training curriculum for the new navigation procedures took 19 months and "consumed" 13% of the airline's NextGen budget, Martin says.

In his written testimony, he notes that Southwest's final operational specification (OPSPEC) package, a regulatory requirement for future RNP operations, was 1,871 pages including regulatory support materials and training procedures.

Southwest is in the midst of training its nearly 6,000 pilots on the use of automation, VNAV and autothrottles. Training on autothrottles began last year as autothrottles were deactivated on Southwest's Next Generation fleet because until then, flight crews had all been standardised on the classic 737 cockpit.

Next the carrier will train pilots to perform basic GPS approaches followed by RNP flight procedures

All training is expected to be complete next year in order for the airline to begin flying RNP procedures by October 2010, Martin says.