Southwest Airlines is moving full speed ahead to improve its Required Navigation Performance capabilities. In December, the carrier selected Boeing to integrate RNP components in the cockpits of both 737 Classics and 737NGs and selected GE Aviation to provide large area display suites for the Classics.

As lead integrator, Boeing will install hardware and software from firms including GE, Honeywell and Rockwell and then manage flight tests and certification. It predicts other carriers will pursue similar modifications. RNP capabilities can cut fuel use, costs and emissions while improving safety and ontime performance. Full exploitation of these capabilities requires actions by other parties, including US FAA.

Jeff Martin, senior director-flight operations at Southwest, says RNP has been pursued in four "swim lanes" via FAA, pilots, aircraft and airports. Application for RNP Operation Specifications recently was submitted to FAA and Martin is hoping for approval in May or June.

Training and certification of 5,600 pilots has begun and will finish in 2010. Initial training enabled the airline in January to activate its automatic throttles and vertical navigation, bringing the first benefits from RNP: More efficient continuous descent approaches.

Southwest's 300 737NGs need very little modification for RNP. Modification has begun on 737 Classics and should be completed by 2013. The carrier has developed RNP procedures for William P. Hobby and Dallas Love Field and is working with additional airports, Naverus and FAA to develop procedures for other destinations.

Martin aims to have the majority of SWA's network using RNP by 2012 but admits this is a very ambitious goal. Other airlines--American, Continental and Alaska, for example--are moving forward with RNP, but not in such a visible and fleetwide fashion. GE will provide its new SDS-6000 display suite for up to 150 SWA 737 Classics for $40 million. The SDS-6000 combines primary flight displays that mimic the appearance of 737NG cockpits, standby instrument and control panels and GE's Integrated Standby Instrument System. Southwest previously purchased GE Flight Management Systems for 737 Classics that were installed in Phase 1 of the modification program, according to Andrew Carlisle, GE business development manager-avionics. The new SDS-6000 displays are part of Phase 2, which runs from 2011 to 2013.

The SDS-6000 suite can be used, with minor modifications, to retrofit other aircraft models. "We are having discussions with many other airlines and there is plenty of interest," Carlisle says. He acknowledges that financing retrofits is a struggle now for many carriers but believes some profitable airlines can fund the upgrades. "For others, we may have to wait for the mandates on NextGen to come out." He speculates these mandates (on ADS-B Out equipage in the US, for instance) may be issued as early as 2012 but agrees there is still a great deal of uncertainty about timing.

GE sees the RNP retrofit market as a major growth area going forward. "If capital is tight, it is hard to buy newer aircraft and there are more retrofit opportunities," Carlisle observes. But older aircraft tend to have less life left and therefore it can be harder to justify the payback. GE had to pursue Southwest for several years before closing the deal. "We won this on both technical and commercial terms," he emphasizes.