DALLAS — On June 16th, Southwest Airlines officially rolled out a new cabin interior, known as Heart. It was first shown at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Germany in April 2015. Three 737-800s with the new cabin are currently in service. They started flying the line over Memorial Day weekend, and Airways received an exclusive ride aboard the first Heart aircraft. (N8688J • MSN 36939 • LN 5908)
New Seats with a Look and Feel of the Future
The Heart cabin gives Southwest customers a look and feel of the future. The 737-8 MAX (as well as all future new 737-800 deliveries) will feature this cabin. Boeing’s 737 MAX series feature more fuel-efficient CFM LEAP-1B engines, with an additional 15% fuel burn reduction over the CFM56 engines powering the current 737 fleet. Also, new winglets on the MAX reduce fuel consumption by up to 1.8% over the current design. Southwest launched the 737 MAX in December 2011, with first deliveries scheduled to enter service in the middle of 2017.
Manufactured by B/E Aerospace, the new seats feature elements found in all modern economy slimlines: lighter weight (which helps improve fuel efficiency), thin seat back and cushion, small recline (or “preclined” if you prefer), upper literature pocket, and multi-adjustable headrest. Although this headrest design is now commonplace, it is new to Southwest. According to flight attendants, initial feedback from customers on the new headrest has been overwhelmingly positive.
These “Bold Blue” colored seats are upholstered with eLeather, same material used on the Evolve seats in the current fleet. eLeather is a synthetic leather made of natural leather fibers, manufactured using eco-friendly technologies.
Total seat count in the Heart cabin is 175, which remains the same as the current -800 fleet; as does the seat pitch, at 32 inches. Seat width was increased by a half inch to 17.6 inches, which Southwest claims is the widest 737 economy seat in the industry, although the this additional width came at a cost of a narrower armrest. Aviation and travel writer Seth Miller tracked the new seat’s development since it was first unveiled in Germany. Seth notes, “At the end of the day this is marketing hype to deliver a seat which doesn’t actually deliver more personal space or the promised increase in seat width, save for at the expense of the slimming armrests.”
From a small sample during our flight, passengers seated in the aisle thought the seats were roomier while another in the middle thought there was less space. Indeed, these new narrow armrests shrunk down that imaginary line of demarcation, which provided more opportunities for encroachment. The thin seat back also did not provide cushioning against objects placed in the seat pocket behind – a common complaint found in all slimline seats. For this author, the seat cushion felt harder (possibly due to the seat being new) however, the increased knee space resulting from the relocated literature pocket was a noticeable comfort. The top loading literature pocket can also be used as a stand for watching videos on smaller portable electronic devices.
The Heart cabin is a follow up to the Evolve seats, which were introduced in 2012 and retrofitted to the 737-700 fleet. With a seat pitch reduced to 31 inches, seat count in the -700 increased from 137 to 143, and the new thin cushions fitted on the existing frames resulted in a lower seating position, which sparked harsh critics over the lack of comfort. At the same time, the 737-800 fleet was delivered with new Evolve seats pre-installed with a 32-inch seat pitch. By comparison, complaints about seating comfort seemed to be limited to the -700 fleet.
Southwest is taking the same seat resurface approach on Evolve-equipped aircraft when time is due for new seats. The new Heart seat will only be available on new aircraft deliveries. Existing aircraft will only receive new Bold-Blue seat covers.
A New Concept Going Beyond the Seats
Changes in Heart went beyond the seats. Improvements in the cabin and service were made based on frontline employee feedback. After all, this is their work environment. The new cabin features a new lockable overhead bin for crew storage, consolidation of emergency equipment from the overhead bins to a dedicated space in the galley, and most significantly, new in-house designed galleys, which provide a new and more efficient workflow for the flight attendants.
The genesis for the new galley design went back to 2012-2013 shortly after the 737-800s came to Southwest. Drinks were served using carts, which was a drastic change from the tray service, a system used by the airline since its inception. The carts were too small, they blocked the aisle during service, and the service concept was poorly designed. After receiving negative feedback from both customers and flight attendants, service model quickly reverted back to trays. But it was still not efficient.
Of the four flight attendants flying the -800, three flight attendants are stationed at the aft galley with one at the front. Each flight attendant would be responsible for serving a different part of the cabin. During service, one of the aft flight attendants (the “C” position) would relocate to the forward galley and prepare service from there. This requires moving all the supplies and drinks needed for service from the aft to the forward galley.
This terrible inefficiency causes passengers in the “C” flight attendant’s section in the center of the aircraft to be served last: those at the overwing exits, often occupied by the airline’s elite A-List and best Business Select customers.
With delivery of the MAX on the horizon, Southwest took the opportunity to start over with a new service model. Jamie Willard, the airline’s Senior Manager of Strategic Projects at the time, undertook the daunting effort.
A call for “design your own galley” contest went out to the flight attendants and provisioning agents. Jamie wanted frontline employees to be champions for the new galley. The premise was, “what does your galley look like if you start from scratch?” Ten flight attendants and provisioning agents were selected and became part of the design team. For the next three years, these frontline employees went on a journey with Boeing and galley manufacture EnCore and created the Heart galleys. It was a collaboration between teams: they learned from each other, understanding each other businesses, and speaking each other technical language.
The front line employees were initially skeptical. The design team was able to convince them to think outside the box. After six weeks on the white board, they were able to move the “C” flight attendant to the front with new forward galley known as the G7. Jamie noted its significance: “this G7 galley is going to make this aircraft standout (for) customer service and hospitality”
Currently, this galley is unique to Southwest. Immediately after boarding the Heart cabin, sharp-eyed flyers would notice the G7 galley to the right of the L1 door. The galley is large enough to be stocked with provisioning for two flights. There is a coffee warmer as well; though the idea for locating a coffee maker there was eliminated due to difficulties of adding plumbing at that location during aircraft manufacturing. The “C” flight attendant is now able to perform his/her duties without traversing between the forward and aft galley.
The new galley also provides flexibility for the future. Based upon a “box-in-a-box” modular design concept, elements such as ovens or chillers or carts not used for today’s service model can be added should need for them arise in the future. “We want to be able to change at a drop of a hat” without having to rely on or design a new galley, Jamie added.
Design and certification for the new galley took 18 to 24 months. As a testament of the collaboration between all the teams, they were able to successfully design a galley that passed final testing. Only one minor change was required: an addition of a quarter-turn latch at one compartment. Jamie exclaimed, “as a result of this partnership for three years, it’s probably the best project we have ever worked on!” She emphasized that getting employees whose jobs were directly impacted involved in the design process was the key. In fact, Southwest’s new uniforms, also introduced today, were also designed in a similar manner using a collaborative team approach that included frontline employees.
Looking to the Future… with a Heart
With the disappointment over Evolve seating on the 737-700, the airline stated that they are “not there yet” on the cabin design on the 737 Max 7. With first delivery scheduled in 2019, the cabin design process is just getting started now. What is known now is the airline wants to continue with the current service model with future flexibility in mind.
As more aircraft with the Heart interior comes into the system, only time will tell whether it will be positively received. On the service side, on our flight, all the flight attendants reacted positively about the new galley and the new service arrangement. Talking to others who have not worked Heart, they were cautiously optimistic, noting when carts were introduced on the -800, that system was also touted as a better service model. As for the new seats, as more passengers fly them, the vocal flying community will surely make their opinions known – good or bad. It is the airline’s hope that the customers will realize the cabin was designed for them… with a Heart.