MIAMI — With relatively little public fanfare, Southwest Airlines retired the last of its Boeing 737-500 fleet on Monday, September 5th, completing the accelerated retirement of the remaining -500 series aircraft as part of its fleet modernization program.
The Dallas-based carrier was the launch customer for the 737-500, with an initial order of twenty planes in 1987. The most important part of what is now known as the 737 “Classic” series (300/400/500) was its more fuel-efficient CFM-56-3 engines.
In particular, the -500 benefitted from increased thrust, fuel capacity, takeoff weight and range over the aging 737-200 series it was replacing.
In a story on Southwest’s blog Monday, Corporate Historian Richard West shared that Southwest chose the -500 because of its ability to fly longer range flights to places with less demand for capacity. However, shortly after Southwest began implementing the 737-500 into its fleet in 1990, the airline had outgrown its “Southwest” territory and longer flights grew in demand, as did additional seating capacity.
Airways spoke to a passenger who was on the last revenue flight. On Monday evening, Southwest employee Jacob Erlick rode the turn both ways, from Dallas Love Field to El Paso, and back to Dallas. He said there wasn’t much celebration on the flight over to El Paso, except for a celebratory champagne toast and the reading of a poem.
Erlick said the party “really heated up” once the plane arrived at El Paso. The arrival received a water canon salute, and he could see people taking photos of the arrival, both from inside the terminal and below on the ramp. The gate area was decorated with some 1990s-era “Just Plane Smart” (Southwest’s advertising messaging at the time) memorabilia, and the gate crew were playing games with customers.
Before boarding, passengers were each given an authentic plastic boarding pass as a keepsake. The plastic passes were used by Southwest from the late 1970s until the early 2000s, until printed paper passes were introduced.
Passengers also received a certificate to mark the occasion, which read, “In commemoration of the final 737-500 revenue flight WN337 from El Paso to Dallas. “Thank you for being a Customer on this final journey.” At the bottom, it has the signatures of Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and Executive VP and COO Mike Van de Ven.
During the return flight, a champagne toast was made, which said:
“Today is the day we say good bye,
This old bird will no longer fly,
So raise your glass let’s all toast,
No longer will you have to fly on this plane and roast”
The last line was a nod to the fact that the cabins of these aircraft would become uncomfortably warm while sitting on the ramp during hot Texas summers.
Once the plane landed back in Dallas, Erlick said everybody went back to “business as usual” except for a handful of avgeeks who stayed around to get a few more photos.
Essentially, the -500 was a shorter version of the 737-300, which Southwest had been adding to its fleet beginning in December of 1984. On the inside, the cabins of the two planes were fitted with the same seats, bins and lighting. Capacity-wise, the -500 sat 122 passengers just like the older generation 737-200s, while the -300s sat 137. Southwest later increased the seating in most of their -300s to 143, thanks to slimmer seat profiles.
On a personal note, I flew 41 segments on Southwest 737-500s since I began tracking my flights in 2001. Six of those flights were on aircraft N502SW (MSN 24179 • LN 1744), tied for my most frequently-flown aircraft. My father, a now-retired Southwest employee welcomed the very first -500 arrival into Houston Hobby Airport, in 1990. I ended up recording flights on 18 of the 25 -500s in the fleet, but possibly more, prior to my record keeping.
In recent years, Southwest kept its -500 fleet primarily on short hops around Texas or to neighboring states. I can’t personally recall anyone ever saying they particularly liked the plane. In fact, Southwest flight attendant Drew Shreeve told me Monday, “Only an avgeek could appreciate those planes. Hated working on them.”
I know many Dallas-based Southwest employees whose hopes of catching a non-revenue flight were dashed or at least delayed by the smaller seating capacity of the -500. One negative aspect of the -500s (and -300s) is that they were never equipped with WiFi, so passengers were left to work or entertain themselves the old-fashioned way.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group told me, “I flew on Southwest 735s countless times when I worked at Continental and in the decades since. A good airplane that served the airline well.
Erlich also shared his impressions of the -500 series aircraft, “I may have flown on a -500 as a kid, but the first flight I remember is from 2012 to ABQ on N508SW (MSN 24185 • LN 1932). I love the classic style seats and extra room. I also like the window shots with no winglets. I have had my share of -500 mx delays and being bored without Wi-Fi (such a millennial) but I appreciate their significance in the history of Southwest and the role they played. I will miss having my own row on a -500 at Houston’s early/late flight.
Famous for painting planes with special liveries, Southwest aircraft N501SW (MSN 24178 • LN 1718) and N507SW (MSN 24184 • LN 1864) were painted with the famous “Shamu” livery during the airline’s sponsorship with Sea World Adventure Parks. These were the only two -500s to receive a special livery.
The final Southwest revenue flight of a 737-500 was WN337 from El Paso, TX to Dallas Love Field, which landed at 22:48 Herb (Central) Time. The aircraft, N525SW (MSN 26567 • LN 2283) entered the fleet on May 27, 1992, and completed 68,314 flights, according to Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.
Southwest will continue to retire its aging 737-300s as well. With a vague date of “fall, 2017” the remaining -300s are scheduled to be gone by the time the 737 MAX enters the fleet.
As of Sunday, Southwest had ninety-seven 737-300s remaining, just less than half of the 195 it once operated. The retirement of the remaining -500s puts Southwest’s current fleet number at 713 aircraft.