Southwest Airlines Director of Flight Operations Talks Fleet Modernization

By Juliet VanWagenen | October 6, 2015
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[Avionics Magazine 10-06-2015] With NextGen, In-Flight Connectivity (IFC), constant capacity restraints, and an ever-changing operations landscape, airlines have their work cut out for them when it comes to modernizing a fleet. Avionics Magazine caught up with Tim Leonard, director of flight operations and compliance and operations at Southwest Airlines, to see how one of the largest passenger airlines in the U.S. is coping with upcoming mandates and equipping for the connected aircraft.
Southwest Airlines aircraft. Photo: Stephen M. Keller. 
Avionics Magazine: Southwest currently has connectivity in the cabin, are you looking to bring that connectivity into the cockpit and leverage it to enhance operations in the cockpit?
Leonard: We are working toward the ability for the flight deck to be more connected. We do see great benefit in a connected flight deck with the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), an electronic logbook, a paperless flight deck, and more. These efforts not only offer real time communication and connectivity, but also by removing paper in the flight deck, we decrease weight on the aircraft and improve operational efficiency. 
Avionics Magazine: How is Southwest using tablet and smartphone applications internally to improve operations?
Leonard: Southwest Airlines (SWA) has an EFB that is used to support the operation. The EFB was implemented to replace the Airside Bag System (Jeppesen charting, Flight Operations Manual/Aircraft Operations Manual, Fatigue Risk Management, Minimum Equipment List, etc.) with a mobile tablet moving to a paperless system resulting in increased operational efficiency, overall cost reduction, and provide a platform for other business units to leverage. The pilots can also utilize the EFB for access to company websites for communication, on-line learning, crew scheduling needs, etc.
Avionics Magazine: How have EFBs and tablets impacted operations thus far? Are you looking to expand your use of these devices in coming years? If so, how?
Leonard: EFBs have been extremely beneficial to the airline and our employees. The business case was built on the weights savings of the shipsets (approximately 80 pounds per plane). SWA currently operates a fleet of 682 B737s, removing 80 pounds of weight off each aircraft saves a tremendous amount of fuel and reduces our carbon footprint as well as lower the risk of injury to a pilot as they no longer need to carry around a 40-pound flight case. The EFBs have also improved both the company and pilot’s ability to communicate with each other. Pilots now have a mobile platform with access to company materials, scheduling, email distance learning, etc., no matter where they are in the world.
Avionics Magazine: Is Southwest looking to use technology to relieve capacity constraints in particularly congested areas?
Leonard: We’re focused on technology on the flight deck that provides more data in real time to both the pilot and the aircraft that inform how we operate the flight in the most efficient manner. The introduction of the EFB last summer has allowed us to remove paper from our flight deck entirely, which has given us the advantages of fuel savings and improved resources and accessibility for our pilots.
In addition, our Boeing 737-800 fleet, as well and the Boeing 737 MAX-8, are coming equipped with the Honeywell RDR-4000 radar system. This enhanced weather detection system is state of the art and our crews enjoy its benefits. SWA has also committed to equipping our Boeing 737 NG fleet with Future Air Navigation System (FANS) capability and is participating in tests in both Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) and William P. Hobby Airport (HOU). The goal is to have the entire NG fleet modified to support FANS by 2019 or sooner. Lastly, SWA is in the process of updating our fleet to support the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out mandate in 2020.
Avionics Magazine: The U.S. leads the world in Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) procedures. Are you currently flying PBN procedures? If so, where and are you looking to expand?
Leonard: In order to position itself for [Required Navigation Performance] RNP operations, Southwest Airlines committed to a $175 million investment in 2007 for equipage and pilot and dispatcher training. Since that commitment, Southwest has worked with the FAA and industry stakeholders, investing thousands of man-hours and simulator time on the development of PBN procedures. 
Southwest will continue to advocate for and work toward evolving technology, standards, procedures, and the regulatory framework needed to allow for greater utilization of NextGen flight procedures. We have fully embraced NextGen, not only from an equipment perspective but also as an active industry participant in the Metroplex process, site development of RNP approach designs, rulemaking in support of broad adoption of PBN, and in the development of the Concept of Operations (Conops) for the Core NextGen Concepts. We are actively engaged in the Harris DCIS program in support of equipment that will enable our participation in early trials of Data-Link communications. 
Additionally, we are working to meet the requirements of the 2020 mandate for ADS-B Out. All of the concepts that fall under the NextGen program, PBN, Surface Operations, DataComm, Improved Multiple Runway Operations, and System Wide Information Management (SWIM) are of keen interest to Southwest, and we will continue to work in support of the transformation of the National Airspace System (NAS) through the evaluation of these concepts.
Avionics Magazine: What do you foresee for Southwest in terms of fleet modernization in the next one to two years?
Leonard: The continued modernization of our fleet remains among the major strategic initiatives and capital expenditures at Southwest Airlines. A modernized fleet offers superior economics, technological advancements, reduced emissions, and improved customer experience. The multi-year plan includes the retirement of the AirTran 717, which was completed last year, and the ongoing retirement of the classic Boeing 737s. These aircraft will be replaced by the Boeing 737-700 and 737-800, which already make up the majority of our fleet, and the new 737 MAX-8 aircraft, which we begin taking delivery of in 2017. 

Improving our customer experience, operational performance, aircraft reliability, and safety drive our investment decisions related to avionics systems. Some examples include providing our customers with a robust entertainment offering via the largest satellite-based Wi-Fi system in the world. We would like to expand connectivity into our flight decks with WiFi-enabled flight display technology, high frequency data link communication capability, ADS-B, and Data Communications (Data Comm) Air Traffic Management (ATM) technology with multi-function cockpit display units. 

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