Southwest Goes Way, Way Offshore

Yesterday Southwest Airlines reached an exciting operational milestone: our first scheduled flight more than 162 nautical miles offshore, far into the Atlantic Ocean. For now, we are only flying so far offshore between Baltimore and San Juan, Puerto Rico, but other routes will probably follow.

This new type of route takes us into what’s called Class II airspace. Class II includes any area that’s too far away to use ground-based navigational beacons, such as areas far from a coastline or so remote that no navigational beacons are installed. Flying there requires special training, FAA approval, and onboard equipment for long-range navigation and communications. In many cases, such as our BWI-SJU flights, Class II also overlaps with areas that are so far offshore that the FAA requires life rafts onboard. These areas involve Extended Overwater operations.

With No Overwater Equipment – 50nm Offshore

Until Southwest added life jackets to all our planes in 2006, we were required to stay within 50nm of shore. Under the old rule, our BWI-SJU route would have needed to hug the coast, a very inefficient route as shown here:

With Life Jackets – Up to 162nm Offshore

Adding life jackets allowed us to fly up to 162nm offshore, which let us take shortcuts across the Gulf of Mexico between Tampa and New Orleans or along the East Coast between South Florida and North Carolina. On our BWI-SJU flight, we could use a route that went a bit more directly between the two airports. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the first route, saving 2900 lbs (about $1300 worth) of fuel and 29 minutes enroute.

Class II / Extended Overwater – Up to 1 Hour from Adequate Diversion Airport

As of yesterday, we can now enter Class II airspace and go beyond the 162nm perimeter with a properly-equipped aircraft. For now, only some of our new 737-800s are equipped for these flights. With them, we can fly up to one hour (428nm) from an adequate diversion airport. This is a significant step up for us in terms of both capability and time/fuel savings. The Class II route saves an additional 2200 lbs (about $1000 worth) of fuel and 20 minutes versus the route using only life jackets. Compared to the hugging-the-coast route, it saves a whopping 5100 lbs (about $2300 worth) and 49 minutes enroute.

Here are all three routes side by side with the new Class II route in white. Nice, eh?

Some of our new 737-800s came equipped to fly more than one hour away from an adequate diversion airport, known as ETOPS. Currently, Southwest does not have ETOPS certification, which takes time to obtain and requires additional maintenance and training. ETOPS would allow service to places like Hawaii. I do not know if or when we will pursue ETOPS, but those aircraft will be ready in case we do.