Southwest to launch new, and improved, jets this month

Longer and more comfortable, and able to make flights to the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii, the first of Southwest Airlines' new Boeing 737-800 jets is set to arrive in Baltimore next week.

The new cabins are the company's first redesign in a decade, with seating tested by people with 20 different body types — from the very short to the very tall. Robert Jordan, the airline's chief commercial officer, said the jets herald "the Southwest of the future."

Southwest will take delivery of 33 of the 800-series planes, which cost about $84.4 million each, this year and 41 next year.

The jets are scheduled to begin service from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on April 11 with an 8:30 a.m. flight to Fort Meyers, Fla.

"We're going to put the aircraft where we have the demand, so customers will see more 800s in Baltimore this year," Jordan said. "People will notice. It looks like a completely different aircraft."

For starters, designers and engineers developed the seats and headrests by mapping the pressure points on 20 body types. The leather-composite seats sit lower, after the 2-inch-thick flotation cushion was removed, leaving just the life jackets.

Redesigned windows combined with the new seat position will allow passengers to enjoy the view without having to scrunch down. Armrests are at a more comfortable height, and the bulky seat pocket has been replaced with a slimmer mesh pouch to increase leg room and help passengers keep track of carry-on items.

Overhead bins are larger and designed to be easier to access. Underfoot, carpet squares will allow worn or soiled areas to be easily replaced. Wi-Fi Internet access will be available for $5.

"When you walk into a coffee shop and it feels inviting ... that's what we want to re-create," said Angela Vargo, Southwest's manager of customer marketing and a member of the design team.

The 800-series planes can carry 175 passengers — nearly 30 percent more than the largest jet in the Southwest's 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.

Change doesn't stop with the new planes. Southwest is retrofitting its fleet of nearly 400 earlier-generation, 700-series jets. Using the same seating as the 800-series will allow the airline to slide another row into the cabins, increasing passenger capacity from 137 to 143.

The new interior shaves 635 pounds from each of the older planes. Lighter planes translate to fuel savings, which, along with the revenue from the additional passengers, will offset remodeling costs, said Geoffrey Buschur, a Southwest engineer on the project.

"We estimate 20 gallons of fuel [saved] for every pound of weight per plane. For 400 planes, the savings add up quickly," Buschur said.

Critics note that the cabin reconfiguration will reduce the space between each row by an inch.

But Steven Frischling, founder of The Travel Strategist blog, says passengers won't notice.

"If you're lower to the ground, your knees and hips are lower and in the widest part of your space. It's easier to stretch your legs into the space under the seat in front of you, and shorter people will be able to put their feet flat on the floor," said Frischling, who has tried out in the new seats. "Will passengers feel a difference in the 1-inch pitch? No. Will they feel more comfortable? Yes."

The extra row of seats, along with the fuel savings, will allow Southwest to keep its competitive edge, Frischling said.

"It's great marketing — 'This is a nicer experience for you, and by flying us you're saving the planet,'" he said. "Passengers will say to each other, 'Oh look, it smells like my new car.' But they're getting the same peanuts and the same can of Coke."

The original plan for the older jets was to give the cabins a light remake so they wouldn't look dated when the 800-series planes arrived. But Southwest kept going.

"It started with the bottom cushion and got out of control — in a good way," Buschur said.

The remodeling of the 700-series jets will be done in Dallas with pit-crew efficiency by 69 employees, who have a 12-hour turnaround time per jet. Work is expected to be completed by the second quarter of next year at a cost of $60 million, money the airline projects it will recover in about one year.

Meanwhile, the $1.4 billion Southwest-AirTran merger continues.

All internal departments have been combined at Southwest's Dallas headquarters, AirTran pilots are being trained and the nearly three-year conversion of AirTran's fleet has begun at Boeing in Seattle, Jordan said.

Southwest and AirTran are responsible for nearly 70 percent of BWI's passenger traffic. Since Southwest began flying into BWI in 1993, the airline has seen its traffic grow by 400 percent, Jordan said.

"BWI has been very good for Southwest," he said. "In my mind, it was our stepping-off point on the East Coast."