Should environmental efficiency be a factor in which airline you choose?

Southwest embraces new carbon emissions and fuel savings measures along with technology partners Boeing, GE and Honeywell.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Personally speaking, I'm not really sure what "features" distinguish one airline's service over another's these days, other than the flight routes they fly.

Pretty much every airline makes you pay to eat, and unless you're shelling for first class or business class, you'll be crammed into a tiny seat elbow to elbow with someone you may or may not know. And if your flight gets cancelled for some reason or another, be prepared to draw on your patience, because the flights after yours will be so full that you will have to wait for hours and maybe even days before you are on your intended way.

So what makes you choose one airline over another other than money and the route it flies? Since service appears to be a wash, what if you knew one carrier was trying to have less of an impact on the environment than another?

I thought about all this when I ready this week about a new effort by Southwest Airlines to embrace "Required Navigation Performance (RNP) efficient procedures, part of the carrier's efforts to assist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System, aka NextGen. I last wrote about the NextGen system in mid-October, right before the fervor over the new, privacy-invading airport security system diverted all the attention right before American Thanksgiving. United Airlines has had plenty to say about NextGen and its corporate sustainability efforts.

As part of Southwest's initiative, its pilots have begun to use the RNP satellite-based navigation systems at 11 airports in order to help conserve fuel and reduce carbon emissions. Southwest is working with Boeing, GE, and Honeywell on the technology for the program, which includes 345 modified 737-700s with new flight display software. More than 5,900 Southwest pilots were trained to use the procedures. The 11 airports are Amarillo and Corpus Christi in Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles; Chicago (Midway); Oakland, Calif.; Oklahoma City; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and San Jose, Calif. The procedures will save a projected $16 million per year, according to Southwest. Once it adopts the procedures at all Southwest airports, the estimated savings will be $60 million.

Says Jeff Martin, vice president of the operations coordinator center for Southwest:

"RNP sets the stage for Southwest to continue doing its part to conserve fuel, improve safety and reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, while simultaneously taking advantage of the high-performance characteristics that exist in an airline's fleet. The efficiencies RNP introduces help Southwest be a good neighbor while also maintaining our low fares."

The RNP measures are part of a six-year program at Southwest related to its triple bottom line performance (performance, people and the planet). The company is also working on what it is calling a "Green Plane."

Among the materials that give Southwest the right to describe the plane this way include carpeting from well-known corporate sustainability pioneer Interface, seat covers that are more durable than the existing materials but that weigh two pounds less per seat, a recycled eco-friendly leather alternative lighter life vest materials (one pound per passenger) more durable rub strips and so on. Ultimately, the materials that Southwest is testing could save up to five pounds of weight per seat, which would contribute to higher fuel efficiency. They are also expected to be more durable.

Will the average citizen choose one airline just because it has a better corporate sustainability message than another? Not if the fare was more expensive, of course, but all other thing being equal, I'd be inclined to fly green.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards