Southwest takes off with new jet

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After two years of comfort-testing its new jets on human bodies of all shapes and sizes, Southwest Airlines was ready to let 153 of its most important bodies — paying customers — aboard Wednesday morning at BWI Marshall Airport.

The maiden flight of the Boeing 737-800 series jet touched off a noisy celebration for the folks bound for Fort Myers, Fla. The ground crew was giddy with excitement at 7 a.m. as it laid out a spread of doughnuts and coffee for the first passengers, most of whom had no clue they were making Southwest history.

"I'm afraid of new things. Has this flown before?" asked retiree Gale Holland of Chestertown, on her way to visit her daughter.

When assured that the new jet was fully tested and has more under-seat space for her six-pound Chihuahua, Mimi, Holland smiled.

"I'll have something special to talk about," she said.

The new jets can carry 175 passengers — 30 percent more than the previously largest planes in the Southwest fleet — and are certified to operate over vast stretches of water, allowing the airline to take advantage of the routes it acquired when it bought AirTran last year.

At 19 feet longer than the other Southwest jets arriving and departing Wednesday morning, the new model was easy to pick out as it moved from its overnight pad at the terminal's end into position at Gate A3.

The cheers grew louder, encouraged by an amped-up squad of company cheerleaders that included a woman in an airplane costume. Everyone snapped pictures and some seemed in a good-natured fog.

"I cut myself shaving," said gate manager Richard Wrzesien of Bel Air, sporting a wide smile and pointing to a fresh gash on his chin. "I didn't sleep much. No pressure. None at all."

Southwest will take delivery of 33 of the 800-series jets, which cost about $84.4 million each, this year and 41 next year. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is scheduled to receive more planes in the coming months, airline officials said.

The arrival was welcomed by airport officials; Southwest and AirTran together account for almost 70 percent of BWI's passenger traffic.

"This opens up opportunities for Southwest and it opens opportunities for us," said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "The longer-haul planes expand the market to places like Latin America and increase the number of passengers we can serve without the need for additional gates."

A new-car smell wafted through the cabin as guests tried out the seats, opened the overhead bins for inspection and adjusted the lighting.

The leather-composite seats and headrests were developed after designers and engineers mapped the pressure points on 20 body types. The seats sit lower, after the two-inch-thick flotation cushion was removed. The life jacket remains.

The planes also have redesigned windows and armrests. The bulky seat pocket has been replaced with a slimmer mesh pouch to increase legroom, help passengers keep track of carry-on items and allow flight attendants to ferret out garbage left behind.

"There's room for your Kindle and you won't find somebody's Arby's lunch bag," said airline spokeswoman Ashley Dillon with a laugh.

The 800-series plane was slightly tardy as it pulled back from the gate just after 8:30 a.m. and took off into the graying sky.

Within minutes, an older 737 jet slid into Gate A3 as the last of the doughnut crumbs and coffee cups were swept into garbage bags.

With that, BWI Marshall returned to its full upright and locked position.