Southwest Airlines’ Weight Loss Program
In 2010, Southwest Airlines saved more than 570,000 gallons of fuel and reduced emissions by approximately 5,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through the use of electric, rather than petroleum-powered GSE. The reductions and others were the result of a program entitled Evolve, the new Southwest interior, part of the bigger picture of corporate responsibility at the company.
The project began in 2009 when Southwest launched the Green Plane, a revamped Boeing 737-700, making cabin interiors more lightweight, recyclable and sustainable. Feedback from customers and in-flight test results helped evolve the interior features including the carpet, seat covers, life vest pouch, and passenger seat rub strips.
The company introduced materials that had never been on a plane:
— Carpet – InterfaceFlor’s “flying carpet” 100 percent recyclable modular Sky-Tiles come in small squares instead of one large roll and are made from a new combination of textiles and backings, both of which make the squares more sustainable than most types of carpet, and are manufactured in a closed loop process. Interface fully recycles its carpets and last year, InterfaceFlor recycled 4 million sq. yds. of vinyl carpet across all of its markets. Flying carpet tiles are removed from planes and sent back to InterfaceFlor for recycling instead going into the landfill. Carpet part numbers at Southwest, for example, went from 260 to three (3), increasing efficiency.
— Seat frame – A reuse approach preserves seat frames. Aluminum frames are not discarded as is done at other airlines. Southwest saved $50 million by reusing the frames.
— Seats covers – E-Leather, which lasts almost twice as long as traditional leather, is made with leather scraps from the leather industry producing a unique new material that is lighter weight, scuff resistant and wipes clean, something traditional leather does not do.
— Seat parts – Plastic parts of seats have been replaced with aluminum, which is more durable, sturdier, long lasting, recyclable and better looking.
— Life vest pouch – Previously, life vests were housed in a two-pound plastic box. By eliminating the box with a canvas pouch, Southwest not only loses the weight but also saves labor costs associated with safety checks and provides passengers with more room.
— Wind screen or bulkhead – The current leather product has been replaced, thus reducing labor costs and waste as it is more durable and lasts longer.
— Rub strips – switching from plastic to aluminum will help with durability, which reduces waste, as well as being recyclable.
These changes, among others, resulted in the weight loss of 635 lbs per plane.
Newspapers and other materials on board are recycled; though plastic cups are not recyclable, they are made from recycled plastic. Due to limited space on the planes as well as efficiency, recyclables are co-mingled and then sent to one of the 28 provisioning centers for processing. Coffee cups are made from paper with an imbedded sleeve made from post-consumer materials, and not made from Styrofoam, a known toxin to human health as well as a material that does not decompose in landfills for more than 500 years.
Partners in the program include Boeing, who chose Southwest for these tests, and Pratt and Whitney, who wash the engines every night: clean engines burn more efficiently. Planes are washed with a closed water system that captures water and reuses it. Southwest participates in the commercial airline alternative fuel initiative in studies and with other industry groups, as well as with biodiesel and biomass fuel companies in an effort to seek alternate fuels. This also includes alternative fuels for their Ground Support Equipment (GSE). Retrofitting of GSE to electric is now complete at the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
Marilee McInnis, Southwest’s senior manager of communication and strategic outreach, spoke of these initiatives at a recent seminar, part of a series at the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Nancy Schneider is a sustainability consultant with EarthPeople. She is a frequent contributor on topics of sustainability, leadership and resource management for the commercial and public sectors.
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