What passengers will think of it remains to be seen, but there's no question that Southwest Airlines' plan to add seats to most of its Boeing 737 jet fleet will have a side benefit for Las Vegas and every other city the airline services.
That benefit would be more capacity into the market — more than 1,000 seats a day in Las Vegas.
The airline announced Tuesday it would begin a $60 million retrofit of its 372 Boeing 737-700 jets in March, with plans to complete the entire fleet within a year. The project includes the 737s it is getting in its acquisition of AirTran.
Southwest is calling the project “Evolve,” and it will include a major aircraft interior redesign featuring lighter seating that the company says will improve comfort for passengers. The new seats will include more under-seat space for carryon luggage than currently available, netted seat pockets, fixed-wing headrests for better neck support and improved ergonomics that will position passengers down and back in their seats for better lumbar support.
The new arrangement will reduce the seat recline from 3 inches to 2 inches. That small change will enable Southwest to add a new row of seats on each plane and increase the capacity from 137 to 143 seats per jet.
What that means for Las Vegas is that over the next year, Southwest, the busiest operator at McCarran International Airport, could increase daily seat capacity to the city by more than 1,000.
The airline already had some capacity increases possible with the introduction of larger Boeing 737-800 jets to the market later this year.
“If you can add extra seats without reducing comfort for the passenger, that’s a home run,” said airline expert Mike Boyd of Evergreen, Colo.-based Boyd Group International.
Boyd said the success of the program depends on the seat.
“Southwest has the most comfortable seats in the industry, without question,” Boyd said. “Nobody ever mentions that. If the customer doesn’t notice any different, that’s good.”
And Southwest is emphasizing that the new interiors not only will be more comfortable, but will be more ecologically friendly and pleasing to the eye. Southwest is offering a glimpse at the new look online.
Southwest showed the direction it was heading two years ago when it unveiled a “green plane” with eco-friendly materials.
The Evolve interior includes B/E Aerospace Innovator II seat frames already in use on its 737-700 jets, but will include lightweight fill manufactured by Franklin Products and E-Leather, a lightweight, scuff-resistant alternative to traditional leather, produced by Irvin Automotive of Pontiac, Mich. The seats weigh 6 pounds less than existing seats. The airline will use blue and tan colors.
The new interior also will include carpet squares manufactured by InterfaceFLOR, eliminating the need for total flooring replacement, and life vests will be placed in smaller environmentally friendly pouches that weigh a pound less than existing carriers and will provide more under-seat room for carryon luggage.
Tray table latches, seat arms and other parts will be switched from plastic to recyclable aluminum.
Southwest anticipates taking its Evolve concept to the Boeing 717 jets it is getting in the AirTran acquisition, but it hasn’t made a decision yet on whether it will incorporate it on the 187 737-300 and 737-500 jets it operates.