Southwest to add more seats to 100 737 Classics

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Southwest Airlines plans to extend a cabin retrofit project to about 100 Boeing 737 Classic aircraft that it first launched on its fleet of 737-700s.

The carrier will "likely retrofit a hundred of our Classic aircraft with Evolve seating as well," says Gary Kelly, president and chief executive of the airline, during an earnings call today.

The Evolve cabin retrofit project was first announced by Southwest in January 2012, and it expects to complete the retrofit in the second quarter of 2013, the airline says in an update today.

The retrofit involves adding an extra row of six seats each to 372 737-700s, taking the number of seats on each aircraft to 143 from 137.

Southwest says today it has retrofitted 50 aircraft through June, and expects to retrofit 100 in the third quarter and another 100 in the fourth quarter. It will complete the retrofit in the second quarter of 2013.

Kelly says that the retrofitting of the 737 Classics will not meet this timeline, but does not elaborate on when this will be complete.

Southwest did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.

Flightglobal's database shows that Southwest has a fleet of 152 737-300s and 21 737-500s. The -300s have 137 seats, which is the same number of seats on the -700s before the retrofit. There are 122 seats on the -500s.

Southwest has said it plans to decide in a few months on the retirement rate of its 737 Classics, which has put cost pressure on the airline with their higher maintenance costs.

The average age of the aircraft is 20-years for the -300s and 21-years for the -500s.

Kelly says that the retirement dates of the Classics was pushed back slightly after it struck a deal with Delta Air Lines in May to sublease its 88 717s that were operated by subsidiary AirTran. These new retirement dates, however, are still earlier than the original timeline that Southwest started with, he says.

Southwest will spend about $100 million to reconfigure the 717s with Delta's livery and desired seat configuration. Delta plans to configure the aircraft with 110 seats each, down from the 117 seats currently.

The $100 million cost is double what it would have spent if Southwest had chosen to keep the 717s and transition these aircraft to Southwest livery from AirTran's, says Kelly today.

However, Southwest has determined that the higher costs are worthy as it has found a home for the 717s, which Southwest has reiterated do not fit into its overall fleet strategy. "The value we get from not flying the 717s is substantial," says Kelly.

In the meantime, an ongoing project to rebrand AirTran's 737 aircraft with Southwest's livery and interior continues, and five aircraft have been converted, says Southwest today. It plans to convert 11 in all this year, and the remaining in 2013. Southwest added AirTran's 52 737-700s to its fleet when it acquired the Atlanta-based carrier.