Southwest’s technical gamble — moving too fast or staying ahead of the curve

by Charlie Leocha on October 30, 2009

cockpit_737_300
Southwest Airlines is ahead of the pack when it comes to avionics for the air traffic control improvements of the future. The airline is committed to retrofitting hundreds of its 737s with Required Navigation Performance (RNP) capabilities.

This might sound highly technical, however, it is a part of the coming air traffic control system that is facing strong financial headwinds. Basically, our airlines are in such poor financial shape they cannot afford to install instruments in their cockpits that will allow the new air traffic control system to work properly.

Southwest’s is gambling that the FAA will get enough of the new air traffic control system operating over the three years or so to make their investment worthwhile.

Other airlines are more risk adverse (and don’t have strong balance sheets). They are waiting for the FAA finalization before moving ahead. And now they are making requests for possible stimulus money to help them with their purchase of the new equipment.

After spending an afternoon at a House hearing on the air traffic control system and the following afternoon with the FAA at an air traffic workgroup meeting, Southwest seems to be on the right track. They will be able to save their millions over time with this new equipment. Other airlines are moving more slowly mainly because of financial and political issues.

This airline equipment is critical to easing the effects of bad weather and congestion by opening new airspace room to efficiently and safely operate more planes. The new equipment will also allow properly equipped planes to fly more direct routes and save millions of dollars in fuel.

Southwest expects to recoup their investment, even given the current state of FAA affairs, within five years. Other airlines are not so bullish.

There is more involved here than simply improving the air traffic system grid on the ground. That is the part that the FAA has been working on for several years. The other side of the equation is getting the airlines to install the new avionics necessary to interface with the new high-tech ground and GPS navigation systems.

The coming system needs both commitments. The government needs to commit to installing the necessary electronics and computers at airports and control centers across the country. The airlines need to install new equipment in their airplanes.

It seems simple, but uncertainty with FAA funding has caused major stakeholders to hold back from a commitment to retrofit aircraft. The airlines claim that installing this new equipment is expensive and that until the FAA has a firm plan in place and timeline for their side of the system, they should not be expected to spend the millions that will eventually be needed.

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  • Kevin M

    Here’s an idea for the FAA: give airplanes with the required upgrades priority for takeoffs and landings. Reward the airlines who are willing to invest their profits in upgrades for their systems with a better shot at on-time performance, and penalize those who prefer to give huge bonuses to the dimwits who bleed them dry by making them wait.

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