I rarely think of flying in environmental terms. It has always been in terms of where am I going, how much will it cost, and how does the timing work. In recent memory, I have flown Southwest, Continental and Delta, focused on where I was going that day and not particularly worrying about carbon emissions. So I was quite intrigued at a recent Net Impact conference to see a display from Southwest about their eco-friendly Evolve plane interior redesign program. The idea was to reduce costs by lessening weight via aircraft retrofit–and do it in an environmentally friendly way. This also reduces jet fuel usage and the resulting carbon emissions. The seats seemed comfortable enough there.
The 600 pounds per plane that Southwest reduced via the Evolve program will lead to about a $10 million operating cost reduction overall. Each seat is about 6 pounds lighter. The seat cushions have a lighter foam filling (with lumbar support), and the old padded seat pockets are now nets. The seat covers are not from regular leather, but “E-Leather”. Think of E-Leather as a lighter, environmentally friendly alternative to leather. The new new life vests saved another pound per seat. As an added extra environmental bonus, the carpets are now installed (and can be replaced) in sections and are fully recyclable by the manufacturer.
The Evolve program is the system-wide implementation of a set of tests called “Green Plane” that Southwest began several years ago. All of the products used in the Evolve program survived about 2 years of actual in-flight testing. Not only did they perform well enough to remain in service, they also allowed Southwest to realize some additional labor cost savings because these products did not need as much maintenance as their predecessors.
From Southwest’s point of view, the program is a success. They saved money while simultaneously maintaining customer comfort. Plenty of passengers have flown in them, and their reviews are decidedly mixed. It is certainly far easier to find negative comments than positive comments online about the “Evolved” seats, including but not limited to Southwest’s own blog. I give Southwest credit for posting the negative comments.
The general tone of the negative comments is that Southwest made the existing seats smaller and uncomfortable in order to fit in another row of seats. Southwest says that the extra row of seats was not the goal, just an unexpected benefit. They also feel that the seats have the same level of comfort as before. I am sure that plenty of people think they are just fine and haven’t bothered to offer a comment anywhere. So it seems that the issue of how comfortable the seats are is very unclear.
I don’t know how many people are so uncomfortable with the new seats to abandon Southwest. For that matter, I don’t know how many are so uncomfortable with the environmental costs of flying that they abandon flying. Some things worth experiencing are just too far away to drive or take a train.
Southwest Blog Post on Evolve