17 Fascinating Ways United, Southwest and Other Airlines Are Changing Their Airplanes. Do Passengers Notice?

Here are 17 of the most interesting examples–culled from my recent interviews with the airlines and other sources. (Hat tip to the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph for a few of these.)

Almost every airline cited new, thinner seats as a weight-savings measure: Southwest and United especially. Even if nobody likes them otherwise.

“I know these have a less than stellar reputation,” United spokesperson Charles Hobart said, “but they can be just as comfortable as the previous seats once you work them in.”

2. No more plastic straws

American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have done away with plastic straws. American says their planes will drop 71,000 pounds as a result, but it’s not the initiative they wanted to highlight.

“Our fleet is more fuel efficient today because of hundreds of new aircraft we’ve taken over the past five years,” an American Airlines spokesperson told me via email. “It’s the youngest fleet among the big U.S. airlines. That’s the main point I’d make for American,”

3. Lighter in-flight magazines

Changing the card stock on in-flight magazines means United’s weigh only an ounce; previously they were several ounces. British Airways did this too.

With about 757 planes, 8,700 total seats, and one magazine per passenger, a single ounce means four tons less weight to lift off the ground with each United flight per day.

4. Less paper in the cockpit

Southwest pointed this one out: “We recently finished equipping our pilots and flight attendants with electronic flight bags, eliminating the need to carry paper charts and manuals.  Switching to these tablets removed 80 pounds from each flight and saved more than 576,000 gallons of fuel.” 

5. Smaller video screens

JetBlue gets a nod: “On our restyled A320 aircraft, our (Inflight Entertainment) IFE is lighter and there are fewer of those under seat boxes that power the IFE,” an airline spokesperson told me. “We have also recently changed out food and beverage carts to a lighter weight cart.”

JetBlue: We have lighter video screens.

United: We have no video screens!

“We’ve removed video screens as you know,” United’s Hobart told me. “Many people are bringing their own on board. We offer streaming PDE–personal device entertainment instead. That’s a considerable weight-savings.”

The Australian airline Qantas has a new line of flatware and tablewear that it says is 11 percent lighter: “The range has now rolled out across our International fleet (and Domestic business class), resulting in an annual saving of up to 535,000 kilograms in fuel,” a spokesperson said.

8. No heavy plates in first class

Similar move on Virgin Atlantic, “which has thinner glassware and got rid of its heavy, slate plates from upper class,” according to the Telegraph.

“The carrier also changed its chocolate and sweet offerings to lighter versions, redesigned its meal trays (which in turn meant planes were able to carry fewer dining carts), and altered its beverage offering for night flights, when fewer people drink.”

Those big bottles of alcohol and perfume all add up, so they’re grounded. “We removed on board duty free products,” United’s Hobart told me. “Very few people were purchasing them anyway.”

10. Restocking the galley

Southwest: “We changed the way we stock our galleys, reducing the weight carried on each flight, and saving an additional 148,000 gallons of fuel in 2014 and 2015 combined.”

British company Thomas Cook “no longer prints receipts for in-flight purchases, saving it the need to carry 420,000 till rolls across its fleets,” according to the Telegraph.

It also “reduced the number of spare pillows and blankets it carries from four down to two.”

I’ll say that one again: pillows and blankets.

Spirit Airlines gets the mention here, and for something people complain about: their comically small tray tales. Besides being slightly less expensive to manufacture, they weigh a little less, which means less fuel required to transport them.

This one seems smart, like there are probably a lot of ways to make a drink cart weigh less. Several airlines said it was a priority.

“Ours were 50 pounds, and we got them down to 27 pounds,” United’s Hobart said.

I’d never heard of this one, but the Telegraph said that in 2008, Air Canada cut life jets out of some planes, and replaced them with “lighter floatation devices.” Apparently this was allowed as long as the aircraft “didn’t venture more than 50 miles from the shore.”

Did anyone even notice? Prior to its merger with Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines reportedly made a point of slicing limes into 16 slices as opposed to 10. That means they nearly halved the number of limes they had to carry.

16. The straight up solution

This one goes back 30 years, but it’s so apt. In 1987, United reportedly realized that removing one olive from every salad it served could save $40,000 a year. That would be just over $89,000 today. Not significant in itself for a $37 billion a year company, but hey, everything counts.

This is the tricky one that airlines would probably love to implement, but it’s hard. In 2013, Samoa Air introduced a “fat tax,” as the Telegraph put it, “whereby passengers would be charged a fare according to their weight.”

Separately, Japan’s All Nippon Airways, in 2009 “asked passengers to visit the lavatory before boarding because empty bladders means lighter bladders.”