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]


42 Responses to United Retires The 737 (Trip Report)

  1. Jared says:

    Great stuff…I took the last ride on the Erie Lackawana railroad when I was a child, and there were people with boom boxes recording the sound of the train. There are dorks for all means of transportation.

    I’m hung up on the guy who flew 1.3 million miles this year – how is that even possible? 32,000 miles a week each week this year? Two round trips from the US to Tokyo every week? Is that humanly possible?

  2. David SFeastbay says:

    If that water was thicker and that sickly green color it would have looked like being deiced…lol

    Giving out signed copies of the flight plan to only members of Flyertalk didn’t seem like a good PR move for the other passengers who didn’t get one. But if everyone got a flight certificate maybe the others were happy with that.

    I’ll head over to Flickr late, right now I have to start work in 4 minutes.

    Did you get a prize if you sat in that old color cushion on that 757….lol

  3. Chuck says:

    Was that your 737 flight home? It says 757.

  4. A says:

    A nice thing United did, but I just don’t get the hype when there are thousands of 737’s still flying every day and brand new ones rolling out the hangar in Renton, WA.

    Now the retirements of the L1011, 707’s, etc. were something since that type if still flying probably isn’t doing it in this country.

  5. Potcake says:

    Ditto Jared’s incredulity concerning the 1.3 million mile flyer. Another way of looking at this is an LAX-JFK roundtrip every day of the year. Cranky, any way of tracking this guy down for an interview?

  6. CF says:

    Jared wrote:

    I’m hung up on the guy who flew 1.3 million miles this year – how is that even possible? 32,000 miles a week each week this year? Two round trips from the US to Tokyo every week? Is that humanly possible?

    Yeah, I turned to my seatmate when I heard that and asked if they were giving him a free week stay at a mental hospital. That seems just insane to me as well.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    Giving out signed copies of the flight plan to only members of Flyertalk didn’t seem like a good PR move for the other passengers who didn’t get one.

    I disagree. The flight plan was simply a piece of paper with a bunch of airline talk on it. Non-dorks wouldn’t have even had a clue what it was. They didn’t announce what they were handing out anyway – they just asked the Flyertalkers to ring their call button. It was a nice gesture of recognition.

    Did you get a prize if you sat in that old color cushion on that 757….lol

    Definitely not. There were actually two of them that I saw onboard. Pretty funny.

    Chuck wrote:

    Was that your 737 flight home? It says 757.

    Nope, the 737 was on the flight up. The 757 brought me home.

    A wrote:

    A nice thing United did, but I just don’t get the hype when there are thousands of 737’s still flying every day and brand new ones rolling out the hangar in Renton, WA.

    They do this more for the employees than for anyone else. United has had a 40+ year affiliation with that airplane. Some lifers at United were there they day the first one showed up on the property. It truly is the end of an era, so for the employees who have given their lives to United, it’s a big deal. I get it completely.

  7. Randy says:

    Skunk is an ATC intersection about 32 miles south of SFO on the Big Sur approach from the south. 1.3 million does sounds nuts. Didn’t Flyertalk always talk about the myth of whether someone could get to a million in a year? 200K was my highest year with flight benefits, but that was mainly just weekends and working on weekdays.

  8. gobluetwo says:

    Perhaps Mr. 1.3 million miles is “ua1flyer” on flyertalk who, as of 10/26, claimed 1,221,631 EQM and 347 EQS. Which would lead to the conclusion, of course, that they were referring to EQM. If this guy signed up for DEQM (or TEQM, effectively, earlier this year) and spent a lot of time in paid C/F, actual BIS miles would be significantly less than EQM total, although still probably more than 99.9999% of travelers.

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/12711333-post118.html

  9. gobluetwo says:

    @ gobluetwo:

    Also, ua1flyer claims to be an 8 million miler with UA. Dayum…

  10. David SFeastbay says:

    Potcake wrote:

    Ditto Jared’s incredulity concerning the 1.3 million mile flyer. Another way of looking at this is an LAX-JFK roundtrip every day of the year. Cranky, any way of tracking this guy down for an interview?

    Some time back CNBC did a one hour show where they spent a week with AA. The reporter open the show aboard AA001 JFK-LAX and just happen to meet on the plane AA’s number 1 mileage holder whom was interviewed when they did the segment on AA’s mileage program. The guy said he traveled every couple of days for work (I forgot what he did) but he never redeems his miles for travel, he just gives them away as gifts. So if you jobs requires you to fly say JFK-LAX as example every couple of days, that would add up. It could kill you, but would add up..lol

  11. Frank V says:

    Just goes to show that the people at United can be nice — when the WANT to.

  12. Andrew says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    but he never redeems his miles for travel, he just gives them away as gifts.

    Seriously. Can you imagine? “Congratulations! Your job requires you to sit in our discombobulating germ-infested aluminum tubes every 48 hours. We’d like to reward you with the opportunity … TO SIT IN THEM SOME MORE!”

    My dad used to be a quarter-million-mile a year flyer on Northwest. He always gave the award tickets to my brother and I to use with our friends, and wasn’t very quick to want to get on an airplane for leisure. I can see why.

  13. Thanks for the share, Brett! It was nice to hear about the final leg of this trip.

    =M=

  14. eric says:

    Excellent article. How old do you suppose the interior really was on that plane? I think NWA’s older 757s take the cake for having the most dated cabins, its like stepping into the 70s!

  15. What an honor to be on the last 737 United flight. While the -500’s are old and decrepit, the new -900ER’s that Continental are getting are pretty nice! Lots of first class seats and only 2 less seats than a 757-200. I’m not trying to promote CAL but just saying that not all 737’s suck. I loved flying that airplane, even the -300’s were fun. I just hope that they still do the water cannon salute when I retire in 30+ years!

    Great site by the way!

  16. Allen says:

    Come on, you didn’t want to go to Denver???

    http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site36/2009/1029/20091029__WEATHER_AC27791~p1_300.jpg
    [airport picture]

    Storm snow accumulations reported earlier this afternoon ranged from 44 inches in Coal Creek Canyon west of Denver to 25 inches in spots along the Front Range and up to 15 inches in some areas east of Denver, the weather service said.

    Snow totals reported to the weather service at about 1 p.m. today include: 38 inches in Evergreen; 37 inches in Genesee; 26 inches in Golden; and 24 inches in Littleton.

  17. Great write up!

    I love how in the video you can still see the old GTE phones. I imagine UAL had been planning to be rid of these planes for a while.

    Everyone of the UAL B737’s I have flown on seemed to have a unique smell, that wasn’t that great. I will not miss that!

  18. jordan says:

    I wonder if the 1.3 million, is total miles flown with UA (lifetime). I use to fly LHR-LAX and LHR-JFK, and to many other places in between, every 3 weeks. Covering multiple cities and 2-4 transatlantic, Latin America and other places every month really took it toll on me over an 18 month period!. So I couldnt imagine how anyone would have a “life” to fly that in a year.

    Im gonna guess, they mispoke on the “year” part ;)

    Nice post cranky! I flew on a UA 737 in sept from DEN-LAX. I was not happy when it was booked, but looking back, its kind of cool! Since it was just a month away from retirement with UA.

    Nice post! I really like Trip posts – and if others are really into these as well. This is a great site http://www.flatseats.com/ (i think a few are rivals trashing each other BA vs VS) anyhoo, cheers!

  19. CF says:

    Regarding the 1.3m miles this year, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they misspoke. But you have to figure that if there’s anyone who has done it, they’d probably end up on a trip like this one.

    eric wrote:

    Excellent article. How old do you suppose the interior really was on that plane? I think NWA’s older 757s take the cake for having the most dated cabins, its like stepping into the 70s!

    I don’t know the exact date on those interiors, but it’s at least a couple iterations ago. Anyone remember when those were last installed?

  20. Dub at SFO says:

    Thanks for the report. I was bummed to find out last night, too late, that I was as ORD yesterday at the same time as the final 737 departure. I’m so glad the 737 is finally leaving the fleet but would have loved to fly the final flight anyway, or at least be at the gate during the sendoff.

  21. PF says:

    Thanks for the memories of pleasant travel on United when I flew them regularly many years ago.

    Thanks for the trip report. Just curious – how do you get the runway information?

  22. CF says:

    PF wrote:

    Thanks for the trip report. Just curious – how do you get the runway information?

    It’s really easy in places like SFO and LAX because I know those airports like the back of my hand. But if I’m in a new place I don’t know, I have a couple of tricks. First, when you’re taxiing, you can look for the signs that say the runway number. Otherwise, I try to remember what was near the runway and then I go on a site like the Great Circle Mapper where you can look up the airport diagrams. For example,
    http://gc.kls2.com/airport/SFO

  23. PF says:

    Thanks, I’ll do some research before my next trip.

  24. David says:

    You left out the most important part of the trip…did you get miles for this flight?

  25. Andrew says:

    @ Allen:
    Allen wrote:

    Come on, you didn’t want to go to Denver???
    http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site36/2009/1029/20091029__WEATHER_AC27791~p1_300.jpg
    [airport picture]

    As a Colorado resident, I say… bring it on! :D

  26. CF says:

    David wrote:

    You left out the most important part of the trip…did you get miles for this flight?

    This was a freebie from United, so nope.

  27. Trent880 says:

    Did the airplane still have Shuttle by United titles on the side? ;-) Lawd, that seat upholstery is *awful*.

  28. CF says:

    Trent880 wrote:

    Did the airplane still have Shuttle by United titles on the side? ;-) Lawd, that seat upholstery is *awful*.

    I was hoping for an old white-topped “Shuttle by United” livery, but I guess they did finally get rid of those. This, however, wasn’t a Shuttle plane – it was a mainline one.

  29. ShaneLAX says:

    The best UA flight I’ve had in the last five years was on one of those old Shuttle 737s on the DEN-BUR run. There was something relaxing about those interiors.

    The new A320 looked nice, but I was disappointed that there was no IFE. That goes presumably for the 757 you took (correct me if I’m wrong on this). DL is making a good effort on putting IFEs in their 757s. As for their NW-inherited A320s, rumor has it they plan to dump those.

    Really nice report. An era has passed.

  30. CF says:

    ShaneLAX wrote:

    The new A320 looked nice, but I was disappointed that there was no IFE. That goes presumably for the 757 you took (correct me if I’m wrong on this). DL is making a good effort on putting IFEs in their 757s. As for their NW-inherited A320s, rumor has it they plan to dump those.
    Really nice report. An era has passed.

    United’s 757 has IFE (inflight entertainment), but it does not have ISV (in seat video).

  31. Doug Swalen says:

    “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.”

    I wonder if anyone has tried an experiment to see just how prominent this problem is. Moreover, what happened, or didn’t happen, to the guy when he tried to get through TSA at the correct terminal? TSA is supposed to sign those passes before they go through. What happens when you try to get through with a previously signed boarding pass? They sign it a second time? Or if the TSA person has been there all day and doesn’t recognize their signature, does that raise a warning flag?

  32. danschuette says:

    Great recap. It sounds exactly as I have been telling those willing to listen. It was a very memorable trip. I too, enjoyed the “chatter” on channel 9 (don’t we all?).

    I was sat in 20A, and Robin was actually next to me. I’m glad someone else got a decent video of the water cannon salute because mine is a bit sketchy. I did ask Robin who all of these people on “beach cruisers”, were at SFO. Apparently, that is how the maintenance workers “commute” between the yard and the terminal, proper.

    One last, I was one of the lucky that was invited out to the ramp at LAX… Just a great day !

    ps I do have the takeoff roll on video. Will blog it or similar and link later.

    Thanks for the report…well said !

  33. CF says:

    Ok just got clarification – the 1.3 million miles was lifetime miles. Guess he doesn’t need a shrink . . .

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  36. Mike C says:

    @ danschuette:

    Sometimes, I am extra secure when there is a really long delay. I’ll go back outside if security isn’t too long. This requires going through security again, and the second time you go through security it is exactly the same except they don’t sign it again, highlight certain things or whatever the policy is of the day (it is so inconsistent, I’m not sure if there is a ‘mark’ of the day or something). Never extra security, never less security — they simply just don’t mark it again.

    Never made sense to me anyhow why they did this in the first place, just seems like a waist of ink. The person that marks it is likely the last person to see your ticket anyway in this context before you go through screening. I doubt gate agents have the time to look for this when boarding a plane and trying to differentiate between connecting (TSA doesn’t mark connecting flight passes) and originating flights. The various scanning systems will alert the gate agent if something is amiss.

    You definitely don’t get a free pass if your ticket is already market. The process just repeats from step one again — there is no security risk going through security twice and I’m sure TSA does it for a reason.

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  38. What a shame . I hope that the 737 does not disappear for ever, may favorite
    planeby far

  39. Ron says:

    So, what’s happening to these 737s? This morning I saw N202UA on the ramp at LAX (right next to the Sepulveda tunnel southern portal); it was still in United colors and obviously still had its registration painted, but the tail was without a logo, just plain blue.

  40. CF says:

    Ron wrote:

    So, what’s happening to these 737s?

    Well, most of them are heading to the desert until they can find someone else to fly them. If you saw one in LA, then it probably was pulled out of the desert and is now on its way to another airline. Not sure of the details.

  41. Ron says:

    Well, it’s still there as of this morning at exactly the same spot, right behind the LAX sign. All the United markings removed (pretty bad job of covering up the name on the fuselage). Could have taken a great photo if I wasn’t driving…

  42. Boeing 737 says:

    The 737 is the most popular aircraft in the world. there are over 1250 in the world at any one time. I still think that Boeing are the best! And the 737 will be around for a very long time.

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