Southwest Airlines has begun a six-month, in-flight evaluation of new interior materials as the low-cost carrier seeks to reduce fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions by operating a lighter-weight aircraft.

Dallas-based Southwest outfitted one four-year-old Boeing 737-700 aircraft that was due for refurbishment with items that are lighter-weight than what is currently used on the airline's fleet: 100% recycled carpet;two types of seat covers;foam fill in the back of the back of the seats;aluminium instead of plastic passenger seat rub strips; and canvas life vest pouches instead of the current metal containers.

Combined, these "eco-friendly" elements were expected to trim 472lbs (214.1kg) of weight from the aircraft, translating to nearly $20,000 in fuel savings per aircraft, per year based on an estimate of $2 per gallon of fuel, Southwest chairman, president and CEO Gary Kelly said during the airline's annual media day on 21 October. But after the airline installed the five different products on aircraft WN222, Southwest found the aircraft was 519lbs lighter.

With roughly 540 aircraft in the Southwest fleet, the airline estimates fleet-wide deployment of the new materials could result in fleet-wide fuel savings of $10.3 million per year, an airline spokeswoman says.

In addition to weight savings, the products being tested in revenue service are expected to be more durable, require less maintenance and lower the airline's labour costs, he says.

For example, it would take four hours to lay down the carpet currently used in Southwest's fleet, which is installed in a single piece, whereas InterfaceFLOR's modular carpet took two hours to lay down sinceit was installed in sections, the airline spokeswoman says.

Aside from reducing labour expenses, the new materials are expected to cut refurbishment costs. Theleather seat covers currently used in the rest of the carrier's fleet require refurbishment every four years at a cost of$30,000 per aircraft, the spokeswoman says. The seat covers being tested--e-Leather's recycled leather seat covers on the right side of the aisle and IZIT Leather's leather alternative seat covers on the left side of the aisle--are expected to last eight years before requiring refurbishment, she says.

During the six-month demonstration, the airline will survey passengers and observe how the two different seat covers wear and how easily they can be cleaned compared with the leather seats in use in other aircraft, she says.

After six months, Southwest hopes to have enough data to make a decision about deploying the materials fleet-wide, she adds.

No commitments have been made yet but should the airline opt to purchase any of the five materials, they would be installed as aircraft are due for refurbishment.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news