At Southwest Airlines’ media day last fall, the company’s CEO, Gary Kelly, introduced the plane that would supposedly revolutionize air travel. What he wanted to talk about more than anything, though, was pleather. “We’re testing two different materials” for the airplane’s seat covers, Kelly explained to reporters in a hangar next door to the company’s Dallas headquarters:
E-Leather, “an ecofriendly, lightweight, and scuff-resistant man-made alternative to traditional leather,” and Izit Leather, “a lightweight product that’s economical. It’s recyclable. It’s durable.” The latter, he continued methodically, as if reading a quarterly earnings report, “also has the appearance and the touch of leather.” The airline industry might be on the brink of failure—profits shrinking, fuel prices mounting, Greenpeace nagging—but, by God, the pleather feels real.
Meet Southwest’s “green plane,” a four-year-old Boeing 737 whose interior has been converted into a test lab for environmentally gentle materials, from recyclable carpet tiles and lightweight foam cushions to, yes, pleather seat covers. All told, the new products shave 519 pounds from the plane, conserving an estimated 10,000 gallons of jet fuel a year. If Southwest refurbished its entire fleet, it would cut at least eight million gallons annually. That, Kelly assured us, scanning his prepared remarks, is “incredible emissions savings.”
This from an industry with the environmental instincts of a wildcatter? Each year, planes spew more than 600 million tons of CO2 (not to mention a litany of other bad stuff). That’s the rough equivalent of Australia and New Zealand’s combined carbon footprint, and it’s expected to double by 2025. Airline executives have largely responded with a shrug. But as commercial aviation logs another year of multibillion-dollar losses (its seventh in nine years) and jet fuel rises north of $2 a gallon, carriers are glimpsing a financial stake in their own ecoheroism. To that end, Southwest’s green plane flies on a message of shrewd environmentalism and shrewder business. Whether there’s any such thing as a green plane is another matter.
On October 21 of last year, Southwest Flight 662 took off from Dallas Love Field Airport and winged its way toward Albuquerque. It was, the cabin crew happily announced, the green plane’s maiden voyage. Otherwise, the passengers would scarcely have noticed. They trudged down a navy carpeted aisle that looked like any other navy carpeted aisle, except that it was made of recyclable squares and not landfill-bound strips. They passed those bumperlike protrusions (which protect aisle seats from beverage carts and invariably catch someone’s bag), now cast in metal instead of plastic. And they slumped into their seats, which looked the same—somber tan and navy—and, unfortunately, felt the same, with just 32 to 33 inches of legroom. Each, though, was two pounds lighter than a standard coach seat. Some people might have observed that their bags slipped more easily beneath the seat in front of them, thanks to new canvas life-jacket pouches that are 0.77 pounds leaner than the old plastic ones. But for most passengers, the green plane was like all Southwest planes: No fancy engineering. No high-tech accoutrements. No frills.
It’s the Southwest way. Founded by a couple of swashbuckling Texans on the eve of the first U.S. oil crisis, Southwest was the first carrier to make air travel cheap and fun. Short, frequent flying was its business, and a rakish, wink-wink corporate culture its trademark. Passengers bought bargain tickets at Love Machines and boarded Love Birds, where erstwhile baton twirlers in hot pants and go-go boots served Love Bites and Love Potion, playing to the company’s (pre–Anita Hill) motto: “Somebody Else Up There Loves You.” The business model took off. Within years, Southwest’s no-frills MO had upended the airline industry, forcing other carriers to slash ticket prices to stay competitive.
All of which proved lucrative, until recently. The Great Recession has decimated commercial aviation. Southwest still turns an annual profit, but barely. Meanwhile, the environmental problem has grown more vexsome with every passing year. Airplanes accelerate climate change by dumping more than just CO2 into the atmosphere (contrails and nitrogen oxide count among their harmful emissions), a fact much on the mind of any conscientious consumer worth his organic salt. A few carriers have made a show of their earth-saving efforts. Richard Branson recently dispatched a Virgin plane fueled on 20 percent coconut oil. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flew an aircraft on 50 percent camelina, an inedible shrub. And Boeing plans to deliver its most fuel-efficient aircraft to date, the gorgeous 787 Dreamliner, by year’s end. Southwest, for its part, took the cheap and fun route. “What makes Southwest Southwest is that we can do things inexpensively,” says Geoffrey Buschur, a systems engineer. “And because we were on a tight budget, we got creative.” They rang the decorators.
Southwest’s in-house “green team” had been fixing for a green plane, anyway. At the same time, Buschur and his engineering colleagues wanted to tweak the cabin to streamline its weight and improve its durability, while marketing eyed an opportunity to create a flying billboard for the better angels of our nature. “Everyone heard about what the other was doing, and the group just came up with this idea [of a green plane],” says Melanie Jones, a Southwest spokeswoman. She then adds with a laugh, “Though the green team will tell you it was their idea, and marketing will tell you it was their idea.”
Whatever the story, the company’s first move was to pinpoint areas that desperately needed work. The plastic seat bumpers were an obvious choice. They had been destroyed by beverage carts and unwieldy suitcases, with maintenance replacing 5,000 pieces a year. “That’s a third of how many we have in the entire fleet,” Buschur says. The leather seats, by contrast, had held up fine, but they were bulky—1,004 pounds for a complete ship set.
Then came the task of selecting new products. Options were limited. Because production volumes in the airline industry are low and restrictions ridiculously high, few manufacturers bother producing materials for the cabin. Consider the constraints: about 50 years ago, the FAA discovered that passengers were surviving the impact of plane crashes, only to die from noxious fumes or a hot blaze (i.e., death by smoldering curtains). Now the FAA requires that cabin materials, down to the seat muslin, be able to withstand a 1,500-degree Fahrenheit flame for 12 seconds without burning or releasing odors. This rules out just about everything.
The carpeting had to be built from scratch. Boeing and Teague, the aircraft manufacturer’s design firm of 64 years (which started working on this before Southwest entered the picture), wanted something that wouldn’t have to be torn out every time a passenger took ill. They called InterfaceFLOR, a commercial-flooring company that specializes in interchangeable carpet tiles and has environmental bona fides. At first, Interface said no. “Boeing, Teague, and ourselves were uncertain we could bring all of this together as a finished product,” says Interface’s Steve Arbaugh, citing the challenges of the FAA checklist. Their solution? “We literally worked through them one at a time,” he says. He declines to share details of the design process—the carpet is patent pending—but says they drew on the principles of biomimicry to cut waste and better blend the yarns. Then, working with Southwest, they tried out various colors and patterns, at one point designing a sample based on the airline’s logo, a heart whimsically squashed between a pair of wings. (“It wasn’t very successful,” Martha Pronk, a designer at Teague, admits.) They finally settled on bright-navy tiles that attach to the aircraft’s floorboards with double-back tape. Individual pieces can be swapped out as needed and returned to the manufacturer, which incorporates them into new carpet. One queasy passenger doesn’t ruin the whole thing.
In other cases, Southwest convinced existing vendors to rejigger their products. B/E Aerospace, the airline’s seat manufacturer, agreed to recast its seat bumpers in 100 percent recyclable aluminum, which is stronger than plastic but also heavier—too heavy, generally, for airplanes. B/E responded by thinning out the profile. After several iterations, the company managed to produce metal bumpers that met Southwest’s weight requirement and widened the aisle by three-quarters of an inch. As Buschur tells it, they still look brand-new.
Add it all up, and it’s a series of incremental nips and tucks that makes the plane lighter, stronger, and more efficient. That’s what good engineering does. It’s just that now, Southwest flies good engineering under the banner of “good for the environment.” That’s what good marketing does.
Two days after its debut, the green plane flew a workaday schedule from Seattle to Sacramento to San Diego to Kansas City to Denver to Albuquerque and then to El Paso, where it landed for the night. In all, the plane burned 6,503 gallons of jet fuel; a typical 737, according to Southwest, might have used 6,569. Other factors affect fuel efficiency, such as wind, passenger weight, and head count. (Just two or three extra people on board add 500 pounds.) Nevertheless, the green plane posted better numbers than expected, and at this rate, Southwest could save as much as 16 million gallons of fuel and $32 million a year if it converted the entire fleet. The carrier plans to continue monitoring its test plane; then management will decide what to do next. Will others follow? “Everyone else watches what we do,” Buschur says. “Already, since media day, we’ve been inundated with other competitors asking us, ‘What is this new product you’re using and why?’”
The bad news is that even if Southwest refurbished all 535 of its aircrafts, the savings would represent about 1 percent of the carrier’s annual fuel consumption and an even tinier percentage of fuel consumption industry wide. Shrewd business, maybe. But shrewd environmentalism? You might as well talk about a green coal mine. “The ‘green plane’ tag is misplaced,” says Tim Johnson, executive director of the U.K.’s Aviation Environment Federation. “The real issues facing the industry are noise around airports and emissions that contribute both to local air quality and climate change. These measures will not affect any of these primary issues, but the labeling of the plane implies to the consumer that the whole aircraft is somehow better, cleaner, and more efficient. ‘Greener carpets’ or ‘greener seat covers’ is closer to the point.”
The same year that Southwest introduced its green plane, aviation spent $82 million on lobbyists, more than any other industry in the transportation sector, including $690,000 from Southwest to address, among other matters, proposed climate-change legislation dealing with carbon taxes and cap-and-trade—two policies commercial aviation has long opposed. That means Southwest has spent money fighting efforts whose goals the company purports to share, what with its green plane. The plane is a nice gesture. The pleather seats might shed a few pounds and woo some passengers who worry about their carbon footprints. But an airline that doesn’t just pay lip service to the environment? That would really send a message: Somebody Else Up There Loves You.