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United Retires The 737 (Trip Report)

Yesterday was something of a flashback for me. When United offered just a couple days ago to give me a seat N331UA - The Last United 737 Up Closeon the last 737 flight before retirement, I figured, yeah why not? You’d think I would have been more excited, but I have mixed emotions about that plane when it comes to United. In the end, I’m really glad I took the trip. We can talk about policies and problems all day long, but when you have a really nice experience like this, that all melts away and you remember that there are some great people on the front line at this airline. And yes, it can still be very fun to fly.

I like the 737 just fine, but for years it has been the stepchild of the United fleet. While other aircraft received newer, upgraded interiors, the 737s just soldiered on in a time warp. Frequent fliers hated them and their mere 8 first class seats, but they did their job, day in and day out.

So I figured, why not take the flight and remember why it’s a good thing they’re leaving the fleet? It only added to the fun when I ended up with 16B, in the middle. I thought about moving to the pain-inducing last row, but nah, this was enough.

I knew a couple people taking the flight, so three of us met up early for some In ‘n Out. It was a beautiful day in LA but it was pretty gusty and chilly. We headed over to catch our flight, but one of the guys in our group was on another airline in a different terminal. He had some time to kill, so he decided to try and get through security to join us at the gate. He flashed his boarding pass for that other airline and they let him right through without even hesitating. Nice work, TSA. Probably could have flashed a bus pass.

October 28, 2009
United #737 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 437p Arr San Francisco (SFO) 559p
LAX: Gate 70B, Runway 24L, Dept On Time
SFO: Gate 72, Runway 28L, Arr 2m Late
Aircraft: N331UA, Boeing 737-300, White/Blue Colors, 100% Full
Seat: 16B
Flight Time: 57m

The gate area was full of really happy people, most of them airline dorks or employees. They had a small spread set up with drinks and cookies, and they had roped off the gate area so people could spread out. Me Next to the DecalsThis flight was not only the last 737 flight in United colors, but it was also the retirement flight for the captain. There was a lot of celebrating to do.

This particular 737 looked resplendent in the new United colors (at least on the outside). It spent the day flying across the country touching all United hubs. It started in Washington and went to Chicago, Denver, and then LA. It’s only fitting that the airplane ended on one of the old United Shuttle routes. LAX to SFO.

We all boarded the airplane and everyone had a flight certificate at our seats in the old, old interiors. There were cameras flashing everywhere, and The Cabin With Late Afternoon Sun Reflecting ThroughI have to imagine that some of the people who didn’t know they were getting on this flight were just taken aback.

The first officer was on the radio and Channel 9 (which lets you listen to cockpit communications) was on. We taxied out and took off into the chop. Once above it, the flight attendants were allowed to get up and serve. One of the agents started on the 737 thirty nine years ago and she was excellent throughout the flight.

I listened to Channel 9 and heard pilots and controllers alike ask whether this was the last flight. When not talking to ATC, the first officer was telling us not to worry when we saw a bunch of fire trucks waiting for us. The captain was having a water cannon salute for his retirement.

Halfway through the flight, the awards started. They asked everyone who was a Flyertalk member to ring their call buttons. I couldn’t count the number that went off. They handed out signed copies of the flight plan to all those who rang their call buttons. They also recognized a guy who has flown 1.3 million miles this year lifetime and another who has 31 flights between LA and SF this year.

We started our descent and as our first officer checked in with Norcal Approach, there was a great exchange. (Trying to remember this as best I can.)

FO: Norcal Approach, United 737 level at 200
ATC: United 737, expect holding for 45 minutes at [SKUNK?]
FO: *pause* Ohhh-K
ATC: Just kidding, thought you’d want to hear that one more time. There are no delays
FO: I wish the captain had the mike so you could hear what he just said

Did I mention I love Channel 9?

We landed and everyone cheered. Then we went taxied in and the captain received his water cannon salute (see video below). I was struck by the sheer number of United employees lining the ramp as we pulled forward. There were baggage handlers in their carts, customer service reps, flight crews, and more. It was really a nice showing. The seatbelt sign went off, and after one last cheer, it was time to get off.

There was only one problem. Nobody really wanted to get Captain Russo After His Retirement Flight on United 737off (except me apparently) because it took forever. People just started writing on tray tables and taking whatever they could find. Apparently, they were taking anything that wasn’t an actual part of the airplane. I mean, they were taking exit signs and even flight attendant call buttons. United spokesperson Robin Urbanski seemed concerned about this since it’s a leased airplane. (Oops.)

Once in the gate area, there were a lot of people waiting for the captain to deplane. Finally, he got off, gave a nice short speech and there was cake for anyone who wanted it. It was just a really nice, heartfelt outpouring.

I skipped the cake because they specifically positioned a new A320 conversion from Ted next door. Not Coach Seats on New United A320having been on one yet, I was curious. The interior is light years ahead of the 737, as you can see as left and the new leather smell still wafted through the plane. It was a really nice contrast, but we had to get off quickly unless we wanted to go to Denver. I didn’t.

One of my friends happened to be landing just before we did, so we went and had a beer before I realized my flight was leaving in 15 minutes. I walked right on and then found myself stopped in the jet bridge.

October 28, 2009
United #931 Lv San Francisco (SFO) 742p Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 910p
SFO: Gate 84, Runway 1L, Dept 3m Early
LAX: Gate 70B, Runway 24R, Arr 2m Late
Aircraft: N521UA, Boeing 757-200, White/Blue Colors, ~80% Full
Seat: 29A
Flight Time: 51m

This airplane was boarding painfully slowly. I finally found my window seat in row 29 and was happy to find an empty middle.

Thanks to some diligent flight attendants, we pushed back a little early despite the pokey passengers boarding for our very short 51 minute flight. Those north winds that slowed us down coming up gave us a nice boost going back.

There was a little bit of chop most of the way down, but it wasn’t a big deal at all. The flight attendants were in a good mood and walked up and down the aisle quickly to try to serve drinks. We had beautiful views, and really the only thing that wasn’t perfect was that Channel 9 was off. I really can’t fault the captain for that one. He tried to pipe in the World Series over Channel 9. Unfortunately it ended up sounding like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons, but it was a nice effort.

Overall it was a great trip on United. Like I said, it’s nice to have trips like these to help you remember that there are some really good people working at United. And now they won’t have to deal with the 737 any more. Sort of.

While it may be gone from service, it is still haunting me. Take a look at the seat cushion on my 757 flight home.

Rogue Seat Cushion on My 757 Home

[See all my United 737 Retirement Flight photos on Flickr]
[See all my United 737 Retirement Flight videos on YouTube]

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