MIAMI – From the date of their first flight on June 18, 1971, the Boeing 737 has been the workhorse of the Southwest Airlines (WN) fleet. Beginning with a tiny fleet of three 737-200s, the airline embarked on a slow, calculated approach to becoming the dominant low-cost airline in the United States, while fending off competitors and being emulated by carriers worldwide.

As Southwest grew over the next four decades, legacy airlines such as Braniff, Pan American, and TWA disappeared. By 2005, Southwest had four 737 types in its fleet: the -200, -300, -500 and -700. The airline had been slowly retiring the -200s over the previous few years, but it was time for the final plane to leave the fleet. And in true Southwest fashion, a massive party was held.

Pajama Party

Rather than calling it a “retirement,” Southwest celebrated with a pajama party, to put the plane to bed. The morning of the event, January 17, 2005 was a frigid 23 degrees in Dallas, Texas as a select group of Southwest employees and local media met in a conference room at the company’s headquarters at 5:00AM. Each passenger was given full-length pajamas to wear for the flight, which were heather grey cotton, printed with “TJ LUV” icons all over them.

Before boarding, passenger names were checked off the manifest list, then we filed down a long hallway and past the dispatch office, through a door on the north side of the building. After crossing a parking lot, we passed through a door in a chain-link fence which led us into Southwest’s Dallas maintenance base (now called Tech Ops).

N95SW, the morning of her retirement flight. By Paul Thompson

The final 737-200 — N95SW — had flown its final scheduled service a couple of days prior, and Southwest’s aircraft appearance techs had given it a beautiful wash and polish, right down to its chrome Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines.

The airplane sat parked outside the maintenance hangars, pointed toward Love Field’s runway 13L/31R. We boarded via air stairs, which is always a treat.

Each seat on the plane was stocked with a pillow and blanket (fitting the pajama party theme) along with a commemorative pillowcase for the final flight.

The pilots introduced themselves. In the left seat was Captain Jim Rice, who had delivered the plane from Boeing to Southwest in 1983. Joining him in the right seat was Jeff Cliponen, who flew N95SW in its first revenue flight. Flight Attendant Karen Amos also took part in the delivery flight from Boeing. The flight attendants were also some of Southwest’s most senior crew members.

The mood was festive, of course, and as we taxied to runway 31L and hit the throttles for take-off, everyone on the plane cheered.

Once we reached the DFW Airport airspace, we turned South. We didn’t have a destination, other than returning back to Love Field at sunrise. Our path took us down near Waco, Texas.

Photo by Paul Thompson

During the flight, champagne and orange juice mimosas were served, and we even enjoyed a pillow fight. On final approach to Love Field, the feeling was bittersweet — the kind of feeling you get when you have to say goodbye to a beloved pet.

You know it has been a loving companion who has served your well for many years, but it’s time… I had started my career with Southwest four years prior, in 2001.

Smooth Landing, Smooth Farewell

Although the -200s were old and noisy, the phrase most people used for the planes was, “they’re paid-for.”

One final surprise happened before landing at DAL — just before touchdown, rather than setting her down on the runway, the pilots retracted the flaps and punched the throttles forward, and we did a fly-by, just 100 feet over the runway. By this time, thousands had gathered to await our arrival.

After one final loop in the pattern, we landed and taxied to the end of the runway, before exiting the taxiway back toward the maintenance base.

We taxied off to the side, away from throng waiting to greet us. Parking briefly, the forward entry door was opened and air stairs were pulled up to the plane.

On walked Herb Kelleher, Gary Kelly, and Colleen Barrett, who were also in pajamas and fluffy bath robes. Next, we were towed back in front of the hangar, and parked nose to nose with one of Southwest’s newest aircraft, N495WN.

We disembarked the plane, while being cheered on as if we were bringing home the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy for winning the Super Bowl.

Balloons and confetti rained from the rafters, music played, and everyone forgot how cold it was. It was such a perfect, unique moment — celebrated in a way that only Southwest could have done.

As Southwest gradually retired the -200, they were kept on short hops around Texas — what was internally known as the “Texas Two-Step.” They were loud, especially behind the wing, and far from being loved by passengers and crew.

However, employees joked, “Well, they’re paid-for.”

Southwest’s employees have always been motivated by the bottom line, and employees have received profit sharing every year since 1974, including an all-time record in 2016.

The numbers

In total, Southwest had 54 Boeing 737-200s in its fleet over the years. Their first plane, N20SW was built for Pacific Southwest Airways (PSA), who had to turn down acceptance of the plane because of financial trouble at the time.

N21SW was originally built for Aloha; N22SW was built for Air California; N23SW had also been ordered by Aloha originally; N24SW was Southwest’s first aircraft ordered and delivered to the airlines; and N24SW was also Southwest’s first 737-200 “Advanced” version, which offered aerodynamic improvements and greater range than the standard Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines.

Also notable is the fact that Southwest apparently had two aircraft registered as N20SW, and N24SW at different times. While the first ones were delivered when Southwest started service in 1971, the second ones were delivered in 1977 (with different serial numbers of course).

It’s unclear why the first planes remained with Southwest for such a relatively short time.

Another of the planes, N68SW — titled “The Winning Spirit” was kept on hand at Love Field by Southwest as a training aircraft for Ground Operations employees until 2009, when it was scrapped in order to make room for the new terminal at Love Field. Employees had been able to  practice the challenging task of pushing back an aircraft while using a real plane.

N96SW, by Paul Thompson

Southwest even had one aircraft in the Canyon Blue livery, which was first introduced in 2001. The aircraft N96SW carried the name of “Fred J. Jones” who was one of Southwest’s original mechanics. Nobody seems quite sure how or why this 737-200 was the only one painted in the new Canyon Blue livery just a few years before its retirement. Some say it was done as a test to see what the livery would look like in the real world, while others say it was actually a mistake. N96SW left service with Southwest only a couple of days before N95SW.

Southwest’s final 737-200, N95SW. Photo by Paul Thompson

N95SW (Boeing s/n 23054) was delivered to Southwest Airlines on May 25th, 1983. After its retirement at Southwest, it went to Linus Airways (PK-LYA), Ishtar Airlines (N95SW), Iraqi Airways (XU-RKK), and finally Ajeton Inc (N737AJ).

According to, the plane has been stored since 2011 at Santa Barbara Airport (SBD). The registration N95SW is now assigned to a Piper PA-38 single-engine private plane in Florida. One would hope that the Piper is owned by a Southwest Pilot.

A Southwest 737-300 (N351SW), by Paul Thompson

Goodbye to the -300 Classic

Now, after almost thirty-three years, Southwest is retiring its 737-300 fleet at the end of September.

The final scheduled route will be flight 68 from Houston Hobby (HOU) to Dallas Love Field (DAL) on September 29, 2017. The so-called Classic fleet is being eliminated as Southwest makes prepares to introduce the Boeing 737 MAX-8 on October 1, 2017.

Southwest’s first 737-300, at delivery on November 30, 1984. Image courtesy of Boeing.

The -300 began its career with Southwest on December 17, 1984; the 81st anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In fact, Southwest dubbed its first three -300s “The Spirit of Kitty Hawk.”

Another flight pioneer, General Chuck Yeager was on hand to help celebrate its entry into service. Southwest has since retired its first -300 — N300SW — as a museum piece at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field.

Southwest founder Herb Kelleher and Chuck Yeager at the launch of Southwest’s 737-300 service, 12/17/1984. Photo by Ken Thompson

The -300 gave Southwest a larger plane with an expanded seating capacity, holding 137 seats vs. the 122 of the 737-200. It also possessed new wings, a taller tail, and quieter, more efficient engines.

These engines, the CFM56-3, gave the plane a range of 2,256 nautical miles. Southwest used the 300 to expand its network to routes like BNA-PHX, along with an eastern base, in Baltimore (BWI). It also allowed Southwest to operate at airports with noise restrictions, like, BUR, OAK and SNA.

N334SW, Shamu One. Photo by Paul Thompson

Southwest’s first special liveried aircraft were 737-300s, in the form of Shamu One, and Lone Star One. Others included the special 25th anniversary Silver One, Arizona One, and California One. Southwest no longer flies any Shamu planes, and Lone Star & California One have been repainted on 737-300s since the retirement of their original planes.

A Southwest 737-300 formerly owned by Morris Air, N672SW. Photo by Paul Thompson

Southwest acquired several -300s with its purchase 1994 purchase of Morris Air, along with operations at stations such as BOI, GEG, PDX, SEA, SLC and TUS. As a result, Southwest was able to establish itself as the dominant low-cost carrier on the West Coast, and remains so to this day. Southwest took deliveries of the -300 through 1998, shortly after they began receiving the Next-Generation 737-700 in 1997.

A former Southwest 737-300 converted for aerial firefighting by Coulson Aviation. Photo by Coulson Aviation.

At least six of Southwest’s -300s will continue to serve on in another career. The Coulson group has purchased six of them to be converted into firefighting tanker aircraft.

Overall, Boeing produced 1,113 737-300s, along with 486 737-400s, and 389 737-500s, (of which Southwest flew 25 copies), and were retired last September. As of this time, Southwest hasn’t announced which aircraft will make the final trip, or if the -300 will receive a similar retirement party to its predecessor, the -200.