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Southwest to launch RNP operations in 4Q '09

Southwest Airlines plans to begin required navigation performance (RNP) operations on certain routes in the fourth quarter of 2009, ramping up system-wide through 2013, in a move that CEO Gary Kelly believes could save "tens of millions annually".

RNP procedures allow an aircraft to fly along a precise, pre-defined 3d path that can be tailored to reduce delays or minimize fuel burn, noise and emissions. In addition to GPS and enhanced flight management systems (FMS), onboard equipment for RNP generally includes displays that allow pilots to monitor navigation performance.

Southwest is investing $175 million over a six-year period to implement RNP procedures. All of Southwest's Boeing 737-700s - representing two thirds of the fleet - have been equipped with the necessary avionics. Upgrades to the 737 Classic fleet are scheduled.

The carrier is "working with the FAA to eventually have customized flight plans for all of our routings", said Kelly yesterday at the Wings Club in New York.

In addition to making operations more precise, RNP operations could "shave minutes" off of each mission, says Kelly, resulting in potentially significant cost savings, although it may not necessarily result in incremental flight activity.

Alluding to the precision agriculture operations employed by farmers, Kelly notes that one can technically "drive a tractor and plough a field" with more accuracy than one can fly an aircraft today.

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