Southwest details reasons for 737 Classics cabin retrofit

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Southwest Airlines has cites fleet flexibility and revenue opportunities behind its decision to extend a cabin retrofit to 100 ageing Boeing 737 Classics.

The carrier's president and chief executive officer Gary Kelly disclosed in an earnings call yesterday that the airline will likely retrofit the 100 aircraft with Evolve seating, the name of a cabin retrofit project that the airline is rolling out over its fleet of 372 737-700s.

The project involves adding an extra row of six seats to each of the -700s, which takes the total number of seats on board each aircraft to 143 from 137. It is scheduled be complete during the second quarter of 2013.

Southwest confirms that the airline's 737-300s, which have the same number of seats as the -700s pre-retrofit, will get the extra seats.

Flightglobal's database shows that the airline has a fleet of 147 737-300s, with build dates ranging from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. Southwest also has a fleet of 21 737-500s which have fewer seats on board.

"We can maintain some flexibility managing our fleet, especially with the [Boeing] 717s transitioning out, And it represents a revenue opportunity for us while we continue to fly the Classics," Southwest says of the decision to add seats on the -300s.

Southwest agreed in May to sublease 88 717s operated by its subsidiary AirTran to Delta Air Lines. The first 717 will leave the fleet in August 2013 with all of the aircraft exiting Southwest's fleet by the end of 2015.

With the 717s leaving, the retirement dates of the Classics were pushed back slightly to ensure they will stay in the fleet for longer, Kelly said yesterday. The airline elaborates on this, saying: "Our plan is to keep our capacity relatively flat, and we can backfill some of the 717s with our Classics."

A retirement schedule for the Classics beyond 2012 has not been released yet, it adds. The airline is not releasing a cost estimate of the Evolve retrofit for the Classics, says Southwest, pointing out that "we gain the revenue once retrofitted of having the six extra seats per aircraft."

When it first announced the Evolve project in January, Southwest estimated that it would spend $60 million to add the extra seats on the -700s. It also said that the cabin retrofit, which will involve new seats that are lighter and more durable, will lead to more than $10 million in ongoing annual cost savings.