Southwest Glides Down Path To Fuel Savings

Southwest Airlines (s LUV) has gotten the ball rolling on a new, more fuel-efficient way to fly. On Tuesday, the airline said it has started using new fuel-efficient, so-called Required Navigation Performance flight procedures at 11 airports — enough to save the company $11 million a year in fuel-savings off the bat, and up to $60 million a year once the savings are in place company-wide.

Fuel makes up a massive percentage of airlines’ operating costs, and burning it in the air accounts for the vast majority of the airline industry’s estimated 2 percent of global carbon emissions. But making slight adjustments to the way airplanes come into landings at airports can shave between 5 to 15 percent off of the fuel burned in a typical flight. Spread across the airline industry, that adds up to a lot of saved fuel.

Old-school air traffic control systems require planes to track widely separated flight patterns, and descend to a certain altitude and then stay there, in a step-wise fashion. But Southwest’s new Required Navigation Performance (RNP) flight procedures allows planes to track tighter flight paths and glide continuously downward toward landing can save a surprising amount of fuel, it turns out (check out this animation for more detail).

Naverus, a startup that developed technology behind RNP flight procedures, was acquired by General Electric (s GE) in November 2009, and GE Aviation has been testing the new technology in the U.S. since August. GE is one of the partners in Southwest’s new RNP flights at 11 U.S. airports, along with Boeing (s BA) — which has outfitted 345 of its 737-700s with the technology to fly RNP patterns — and Honeywell (s HON).

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to roll RNP out to all the country’s airports and airlines over the coming years as part of its Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program. That could cost around $6 billion to $7 billion in upgrades for the federal government and airlines and airports to support the new flight procedures — but it’s a needed next step for the nation’s air traffic control system to manage ever-increasing volumes of passenger and cargo flights, as well as save fuel and money.

Naverus has also tested its technology in Australia, Canada, Peru and China as well, and GE Aviation is testing it in the European AIRE (Atlantic-Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions) project.

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Image courtesy of TXphotoblog via Creative Commons license.