Labor and Training Issues Push Southwest to Retire Its 737 Classics Next Year


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.

Southwest 737-300 Retire

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.)

Southwest 737 On Time Performance

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).

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27 comments on “Labor and Training Issues Push Southwest to Retire Its 737 Classics Next Year

  1. I get the 500 quite a bit running between AUS-DAL. Great seat on those older ones, no matter where you sit.

    I am going to miss them, when everything is that uncomfortable slim line “Evolve”d seat.

    1. We get them occasionally on MSY-DAL and MSY-HOU. I love that they still have the heart/wings logo on the bulkheads.

  2. Any chance this is also a little bit of mgmt negotiating in public with the pilots? 50 fewer jets overnight with a while to fully replace the capacity (and oh, by the way, the airline is going to replace much of that 122/137-seat jet capacity with 175+ seat jets) means a lot less flying for pilots. Puts the union in a position to defend less hours and possible RIFs because it wouldn’t allow a short-term temporary crew force.

    1. Mike – That question did come up on the earnings call. It’s hard to know, of course, but I don’t get the feeling this isn’t a negotiating tactic. Southwest acts like this is a done deal. Now, if the pilots change their tune and Southwest miraculously decides to keep the fleet flying, then it will have clearly been shown to be a negotiating tactic. But I don’t think we’re going to see that.

  3. Too bad the union couldn’t convince the pilots that a sub-group would be helpful.

    Pilots on the verge of retirement, and new pilots wanting to grab hours would jump at the chance – heck you could get pilots from the regionals to cut off an arm to get out of CRJ and into a 737 (let’s hope the controls are accessible if this does happen). I could see them tossing in a differential for the “pain” of servicing the sub-fleet through retirement.

    But alas – Union short-sightedness will always lead to long term pains. SWA will be happy to let the union take the blame when the furlough hits – and it will hit.

    1. Maybe if Southwest had given the pilots an incentive to accept the deal, the union would have accepted it. Virtually all other airlines offer pay differentials for different equipment; the pilots didn’t force the issue with the -800, with the understanding there’d be payback down the road. It never happened, and the pilots feel burned.

  4. Actually the 737-300/400/500 are EFIS (electronic) Cockpit Aircraft. They were delivered to Southwest with Electronic cockpits, Southwest converted them back to ‘steam gauges’ after delivery, and probably cut their costs by about $1 million per aircraft by re-selling the new EFIS equipment. So while WN’s 737classic are not computerized now, they came from the factory that way and were converted to steam gauges for commonality with the 737-200’s that WN already had. On the NG, the EFIS cockpit was made to emulate the steam gauges for cockpit commonality with the Classic.

    1. Not true. /300 and /500 aircraft were delivered with analog gauges worldwide, including to SWA.

      The SWA pilots contract has been up for renewal for four years, hard to blame them for not agreeing to new rules without signing a new contract.

  5. Could the capacity crunch lead to the closure of smaller stations or a reduction in frequencies? When Southwest started they had 3 very popular 737s that served only three cities DAL,HOU, and SAT. The only place you could by a ticket was on board and the flight attendants wore hot pants and go go boots, as did the ticket agents. The only beer served was from Texas, Lone Star, Pearl or Shiner.

    1. drybean – I’m sure it’ll result in a temporary frequency reduction in some form or another, but it’s just temporary. This wouldn’t be something to cause small stations to close.

  6. Good catch on the seats (The other 34, by the way, are the only ones with the older comfy seats on them. ) I prefer the older seats in the “other 34” a/c.

  7. Just a traveler/observer, isn’t the WN 737, any version, and WN’s use thereof, the perfect example to study for how airplanes stay together given the wear and tear the seem to take?

    And, given the takeoffs and landings WN pilots have to make, isn’t the WN pilot the perfect example to study for how real-life practice does, or maybe doesn’t, make perfect?

      1. Indeed. Hawaii is an even better example. Hawaiian set some cycle records on their DC-9-50s, in a humid, salty air environment, no less.

        On the other side of the inter-island terminal, the 737-300/-400/-700 couldn’t take the rigors of inter-island duty (short hops and fast turns meant not enough time for the engine core to cool down), so Aloha had to stick with the -200 for inter-island flights.

  8. I remember when we first flew Southwest in those little planes. That was all they had until the next generation when they started to roll out the larger, more spacious planes. What a thrill when you discovered you were on one of the “big” new ones. Whole new Southwest experience.

  9. The creation of Sub-groups ( actually called subsets ) was done by the company not the union, perhaps to limit training costs and increase scheduling flexibility, unfortunately at the expense of the pilots’ quality of life and earning potential. The short-sightedness was not on the Union. The union disagreement was to protect its pilots.

    But it’s a moot point anyway because new FAA directives make maintaining a Classic cost prohibitive, that’s the real reason for early retirement. It’s a matter of public record, look it up. The company using the pilot excuse is just a negotiating tactic to make the pilots look responsible when in reality they were anything but.

    1. Exactly. The CEO is an accountant, so it’s about dollars and cents. It’s disingenuous to blame the pilots when increased maintenance costs for the Classic are the real answer.

    2. Exactly!! Look up Airwaorthyness Directives AD-2016-NM-017 for stabilizer cracking inspections which could cost over 400K per jet or AD-2008-16084 for requires NGS (nitrogen system) for fuel tanks which must be installed on al 737s by 2017, but can’t be installed on 737-300 and -500.
      Pure BS and negotiating in public by SWA mgmt. Poor for at best!?

      1. Greg/Frank – That’s rumor and it’s not true.

        The first AD you list Greg is an inspection that costs virtually nothing to do. If repairs are required, they aren’t expected to be all that expensive, but I’m sure if some of the airplanes needed a fix, they could retire those first since there are regular retirements anyway.!documentDetail;D=FAA-2016-4222-0001

        The second AD isn’t anything I can find. Are you talking about Amendment 39-16084? That doesn’t seem relevant. (If you have a link, post it).
        But there are a million ADs all the time for older jets like the 737 Classics. There is nothing out there today that has made Southwest speed this up. I’ve asked multiple people who would know.

        1. The airworthiness directive for fuel tank flammability states   “The operational rules do not require modification of older airplanes certificated prior to January 1, 1992 unless they are operated in passenger service beyond 2017.”, so if Southwest doesn’t have the system on their classic’s this is a ligit argument.

  10. If WN goes looking for NG’s, I could see them calling AS. They’ve already bought a couple of their 737-700s and AS is looking to retire them anyway. Could be a good stop gap.

  11. I had to fly a 737-300 from ATL to BOS. 2.5 hours of Evolve seating and no Wi-Fi. I wasn’t exactly feeling the nostalgia of flying a “Classic.”

  12. Sorry but i don’t think your data is particularly sound, the 300/500 classics often fly short hops (like LAS-SFO, PHX-ELP) and because a higher % of the flight is spent on the ground, delays are more likely to occur with little cruising time for those planes to make up time. I agree that the classics are delayed more often, but the data exaggerates the actual delays on account of equipment. I would expect a slight uptick in the delays for 700/800 NG’s once they begin flying more short hops.

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