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United Airlines

United retires its last Boeing 737

Julie Johnsson  Oct 29, 2009

Wednesday marked a bittersweet milestone in aviation history.

United Airlines, the first carrier to make the Boeing 737 a staple of its fleet 41 years ago, retired the last of those jets in an airborne party that stretched from Virginia to California.

The plane was the last of 94 Boeing 737s that United has grounded since September 2008. That painful maneuver cost thousands of United workers their jobs but likely saved the carrier from financial calamity as the travel market collapsed last winter following Wall Street's meltdown, analysts said.

United's last Boeing 737, traveling as Flight 737, lifted off from Washington Dulles International Airport before dawn Wednesday and touched down at every one of the carrier's hubs as it made its way to a giant maintenance base in San Francisco.

Mechanics will strip down the plane and prepare it for its final journey to the central California desert, where it will be parked.

The fuss over the jet's last journey is a reminder of the fascination that aviation holds for many people, from road warriors to airline employees. But not everybody will be cheering the United 737's retirement.

"It's like losing a best friend," said Jeff Ecklund, who flew 737s for six years at United before losing his job in September. He's one of 1,450 pilots being furloughed as United grounds its 737 fleet and six Boeing 747 jumbo jets. "We tend to become attached to these big pieces of aluminum."

The jet's final flights also marked the end of an era at Chicago-based United, which had a hand in making the 737 the best-selling passenger jet of all time.

When United put its first Boeing 737 into service in 1968, passengers still donned their Sunday best for air travel and controversy raged over whether flight attendants should be fired for getting married.

Looking for a jet to replace its propeller fleet, United selected the Boeing 737-200, becoming the launch customer for the first version of the jet to become widely used (only a handful of the first generation of jets were sold).

The 737, in turn, revolutionized air travel. It was relatively lightweight, seated about 120 people and required only two pilots in the cockpit, instead of three like its predecessors.

In the hands of Southwest Airlines, which boasts an all-737 fleet, and other low-cost carriers, it became a plane for the masses. The latest generations of the plane are still strong sellers for Boeing, which has garnered more than 6,000 orders over the 737's life span.

"It was the right size, right operating economics at the right time," said aviation consultant Robert Mann of the jet's success.

United bought 233 of the Boeing narrow-body jets in two waves of expansion: during the late 1960s and the late 1980s through 1993. But when faced with the tough choice of paring its aircraft fleet as oil prices spiked in June 2008, United opted to give up its 737 "classics," as they're known in aviation, rather than its younger fleet of Airbus A320s.

The last 737's final flights for United resound with aviation buffs, said Tom Lee. He's a Los Angeles-based aerospace executive and aircraft enthusiast who has journeyed on two other historic flights: the first commercial voyages of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and Airbus A380 double-decker aircraft.

Some joined the party because they have fond memories of the plane itself, he said. For others, the connection is more primal.

"It's got to be the fascination with flight," Lee said. "There's something with man's desiring of spreading his wings, getting off the ground and wishing he could fly."

United retires its last Boeing 737
United Airlines' Boeing 737 / Image via


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