MIAMI — Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest operator of an all-Boeing fleet, and on October 1, 2017 they launched the 737 MAX, a more fuel-efficient and, altogether more modern-day aircraft, into their fleet.

Friday was all about reflection as the company retired the last 30 of their 737-300s, one of the three so-called “Boeing 737 Classic” series (the -400/-500 models made up the triumvirate of this second generation derivative of the 737).

Southwest was the world’s launch customer for the 737-300 when it announced an order for 10 new Boeing -300 series on June 23, 1981. They began flying the -300s on December 17, 1984.

The aircraft featured the much quieter and more fuel-efficient CFM56-3 turbofan engines with its distinctive flat-bottomed nacelle, aptly nicknamed “the hamster pouch.”

In addition to yielding greater range, the -300 series also had increased passenger capacity (149, but Southwest configured it at 137) over the -100/-200 series, which Boeing achieved by extending the fuselage around the wing by just over 9 feet. The 737-300 was the most successful of the Classic series, with deliveries totaling 1,113 aircraft (241 more than the -400 and -500 series, combined).

The inaugural flight of the Southwest 737-300 (N300WN) was on an aircraft named “The Spirit of Kitty Hawk” which took off on December 17, 1984 and flew DAL-HOU-SAT-DAL, exactly 81 years to the day of the Wright Brother’s first flight in Kitty Hawk, NC.

Herb Kelleher boarding the Spirit of Kitty Hawk, Southwest’s first 737-300 flight in 1984, courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

In a lovely bit of aviation symmetry, the flight also recreated the original Texas Triangle flown by Southwest on June 18, 1971. Incidentally, the inaugural 737 MAX was scheduled to fly this same Texas Triangle on October 1 as a nod to Southwest’s history and the importance of the -300 to the airline. Though those plans went somewhat awry.

What I would have given to have been at the gala dinner at the Anatole in Dallas the night before that first flight: 600 dinner guests celebrating the advances in aviation over the previous 40 years – including the introduction of the 737-300 – with Chuck Yeager and Bob Hope among the featured guests!

What an impact

The impact of the -300 on Southwest’s operations cannot really be over-stated. When The Spirit of Kitty Hawk first flew the triangle, Southwest served just 23 cities. The longest route in the network at that point was SAT-LAX at 1,051 nautical miles.

With the fully-loaded, range of the  -300 topping out at 2,100 nautical miles (versus the 1,100 nautical mile range of the -200), expansion was on the cards, and Southwest began to spread the LUV far and wide. The -300 quickly became the airline’s backbone and its increased range was critical to Southwest opening up new markets, like BNA-PHX and STL-PHX.

What the airplane did was allow the airline to fly to these destinations without any payload restrictions. Indeed, for a time in the mid-1990s, STL-PHX and BNA-PHX were Southwest’s highest ASM market.

The -300 was also key to Southwest’s ability to operate in noise-sensitive airports, like BUR, which was a “voluntary” noise and operating curfew airport, and SNA, which had stricter rules and fines associated with noise exceedance. At peak (December 31, 1999), Southwest flew 195 737-300s, the largest fleet of -300s in the world at the time. The fact that this bird is still flying is simply a testament to its brilliance.

An air-to-air photograph of the 737-300. Credit: Southwest.

All 737-300 aircraft Were removed from revenue operation Friday, approximately 30 in all, with all flights operating a normal day’s schedule. Both leased and owned -300s will finally be stored in Victorville, CA awaiting various fleet transactions. This flight, WN68 from HOU-DAL, is the last Southwest 737-300 revenue flight, and I am honored to be on board.

On board the last flight

I arrived at Hobby’s Gate 44 at 9 PM, an hour and a half before scheduled departure. At first, there was no sign that this is going to be a special flight. But before long, Southwest ground crew began setting up a table and, in very short order, we had cookies, sodas, and a lot of very sentimental employees.

I noticed a few AvGeeks congregating around the cookies (we are famous for that sort of thing!), along with a few bemused revenue passengers. The atmosphere was friendly and festive, in true Southwest fashion.

The sign says it all. Credit: Author.

Brian Parrish, Communications Senior Advisor and a Southwest spokesperson, had told me earlier in the week that there might be “just a few more than normal” Southwest employees on board, and indeed there were, around 50. Some are young interns while others, like Bill Owen, Senior Business Consultant in Network Planning, are Southwest veterans.

“In terms of new routes, this airplane really gave us the legs to do routes like STL-PHX and DET-PHX. The rate of influx of aircraft was also crucial as we were getting as many as 30 to 32 per year which was a network planners dream.”

“I get a sense you are feeling somewhat nostalgic tonight, Bill?” I asked him, as the boarding area began to fill.

“Yeah, it’s like I am watching a very dear work friend retire. A lot of these airplanes are going to go on to other lives with other airlines, most all of them in other countries. A lot of them will become freighters. But a lot of them will not see service again. So it’s like watching a dear friend walk out the door for the last time and turning in their ID. I’m just so fond of them.”

Brian Parrish, Communications Senior Advisor and a Southwest spokesperson, introduces the flight crew prior to boarding. Credit: Author.

Captain Jesper Andersson, who will immediately switch over to the 737 MAX, was gracious to spend a few minutes with me as he signed boarding passes and photos of the -300.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet day to see it go,” Andersson said. “It’s been with us for 33 years here at Southwest Airlines and it enabled us to go from a small regional carrier to the national phenomenon that we are today.”


Southwest employees Dennis Rogers (left) and James Perkins (right), both Customer Service Managers, pose by the retirement sign. Credit: Author.
Several of the Southwest employees join the festivities at Gate 44. Credit: Author.
The full flight crew of WN68: Captain Jesper Andersson, Shirl Holguin, Brenda Westbrook, Katie Osburn and First Officer Tom Ahern. Credit: Author.

We boarded tail number N632SW right on time with almost everyone stopping at the door to sign the beautiful bird. And lucky for me, seat 1A was open, and I settled in for our 55-minute flight to Dallas Love Field.

Captain Andersson came onto the PA to welcomed everyone on board and gave a little background to the -300. When flight attendant Shirl Holguin finished her safety briefing with the news that “cocktails will be complimentary tonight” the mood was raised even further up the fun Southwest scale.

Some early signatories at the door of WN68. Credit: Author.

The flight was a little bumpy, which didn’t deter Southwest employees, and 737-300 diehards, 69, from handing out peanuts. On our descent, we collectively toasted mthis special airplane while Bill Owen handed out commemorative certificates signed by Southwest Chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly.

Flight attendant Shirl Holguin at work in the galley. Credit: Author.

As we taxied to the gate, we were given a water cannon salute, an emotional moment for several people on board, me included. This was my first “final flight” as a Contributing Editor for Airways Magazine, and it was simply a lot of fun!

On Sunday, October 1st, Southwest launched eight 737 MAX 8’s into revenue service, the first airline in North America to take MAX to the skies. So, while the sun has set on the 737-300, it rose in just over 24 hours on the 737 MAX, a more efficient, advanced-technology bird that will take Southwest passengers farther, and in greater comfort, than ever before. To the 737-300 – job well done!

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By day, Mike Slattery is Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Professor at Texas Christian University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. Originally from South Africa, Mike is an internationally-trained geographer and environmental scientist who has written more than 85 scientific articles and a book on a range of environmental issues, from human impacts on rivers systems to the socio-economic impacts of large-scale wind farms. But he is also an AvGeek with a particular interest in (and extensive collection of) airline menus. Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the game reserves of Southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.4 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 118.5 days or 5.8 x the distance to the moon. “I’ll never understand how an airliner gets off the ground, but I sure love being in them!” He lives with his family in Fort Worth.