It has been a few years since most US airlines retired their Classic 737s, but Southwest continues to soldier on with more than 100. Until recently, the plan had been to see those fly into the next decade, but that abruptly changed in January when the date was moved up to 2018. Now, it’s been moved up again all the way to the third quarter of next year. Why? It’s a combination of labor strife and training issues. Travelers should be happy since these are the most delay-prone aircraft in the fleet, but it’s going to create quite the capacity crunch when they disappear.
A Very Brief History of Southwest’s 737 Love Affair
With the pending delivery of the 737MAX aircraft, Boeing will be on its fourth generation of 737s.
The first generation (737-100/200) was a hit in that it allowed airlines to transport people on short hops with only 2 pilots and no flight engineer. After flirting with props, Southwest settled on the 737-200 as its chariot of choice. These 737s were workhorses, but they were under-powered, under-sized, and not as efficient as they could have been as engine technology evolved.
In the early 1980s, Southwest became one of the launch customers of the next generation of 737s (737-300/400/500), those which today are referred to as Classics. This airplane used a newer, very efficient high-bypass engine. It could also carry a few more people. When it joined the Southwest fleet in 1984, it was a huge success. It quickly became the airline’s backbone, and the fact that this model is still flying today is a testament to its usefulness.
But the writing was on the wall as early as the 1990s when Southwest joined with Boeing to launch the newest 737 (737-600/700/800/900). These NextGen (NG) airplanes were delivered in the late 1990s and Southwest fell in love. The Classics still had a place at the airline, but future growth was all about the NG.
After 9/11, the first generation 737s all but disappeared from the skies, and most airlines began retiring their Classics as well. Delta’s last ones were put out to pasture in 2006. United’s made it to 2009 (I was on the last flight) and again in 2013 when it got rid of the last Classics inherited from Continental. US Airways didn’t stop flying its last Classic until 2014. But Southwest continued to soldier on.
At the end of March of this year, Southwest had 111 737-300s still flying (with another 8 737-500s). Of those, 77 of the 737-300s were refurbished with the newer Southwest interiors under the belief that some would probably make it past 2020. (The other 34, by the way, are the only ones with the older comfy seats on them.) But times change, and now the retirement has been moved up all the way to the third quarter of 2017. What gives?
MAX and Classics…(Not) Friends… Forever
There are a few things going on here, but the catalyst for all this is the delivery of the 737MAX next year. This newest generation of the 737 will be more efficient and have greater range than the NGs that Southwest uses today, but as with all new types, there are training issues to resolve before they can fly.
Southwest has long believed in the beauty of a single fleet, and part of that is ensuring that all its pilots can fly every airplane. The 737-300 was built before computers took hold in the cockpit, so when the NGs were built, Southwest made the computer displays in the cockpit look like the old round dials in the Classic aircraft. This made it relatively easy for Southwest to have its pilots fly both the NGs and the Classics with minimal training issues.
But now, the MAX is coming and that’s an even newer generation. Coming up with a training program that would easily allow pilots to fly all three types is challenging, and the FAA isn’t expected to have its rules out on qualification for both Classics and MAX aircraft until next May at the earliest, according to Southwest’s earnings call. That wouldn’t give Southwest enough time to get its pilots trained. It also doesn’t matter that much since the Classics were going to be gone less than a year later anyway. The smarter plan was to just design a training program for the NGs and the MAXs and not worry about the Classics.
Enter the Angry Pilots
To bridge that one-year gap, Southwest had hoped to temporarily carve out some pilots who would be dedicated to the Classics until the fleet retired, but that would require a side letter where the pilots agree to the plan. The pilots, however, are in the middle of a lengthy and angry contract negotiation.
It was unsurprising when Southwest noted that those efforts were “unsuccessful.” This left Southwest with a choice. It could take a chance that training would be possible or it could just retire the fleet early. Despite neither being a good option, I can’t imagine this was a hard decision. The Classics will be gone just before the MAXs start flying.
Putting the Fleet Out to Pasture
This is good news for passengers since the 737-300s are the current dogs of the fleet with on-time performance lagging the rest. I took a look at masFlight performance data, and here’s how they compare to the NG aircraft. (This doesn’t include the 8 737-500s that mostly fly around Texas these days.)
So from that perspective, this isn’t a bad thing. But there is a real impact next year when these airplanes disappear. Southwest says one day it will have 50 Classics flying and the next, they’ll be gone. That means there will be 50 fewer airplanes flying in the fourth quarter of next year than it expected to have. Southwest will undoubtedly time this right, so they will go in September, after the summer peak. There’s a natural pull down of flying then anyway, which helps. But there’s still a gap to be filled.
Southwest says it can look to buy used NGs on the open market to fill the gap or it could push its existing fleet harder so those airplanes become more productive. (We all remember how that worked out last time?) But for about a year, Southwest has a capacity problem and it needs to solve it. The airline seems confident, so we’ll just have to wait until the new year when we’ll see how the September schedule looks.
Until then, enjoy those Classics while they’re still around (as long as you aren’t delayed).