By 1965 Lufthansa had only been flying for ten years, after its belated re-establishment of services following World War Two. Nonetheless it was rapidly growing into one of the world’s premier international airlines and was beginning to standardise around a Boeing fleet with 707s, 720s and 727-100s already in service. Even so it was not a particularly large airline at this point and certainly did not have the lustre of the US majors. It was something of a surprise therefore that on February 19, 1965 Boeing announced Lufthansa as the launch customer for its new short haul jet, the Boeing 737, with 21 aircraft ordered for the series 100.
Boeing had been late to the market with a short haul offering so that by 1965 almost all the world’s major airlines had already ordered one of the several excellent alternatives. Most European airlines plus United had ordered the Sud Aviation Caravelle whilst the rest of the field had decided upon either the BAC One-Eleven (Braniff, American, Mohawk) or the Douglas DC-9. In fact just six days after the Lufthansa order Eastern also selected the Douglas jet.
The Lufthansa order was the first time that a non-US launch customer was found for an American airliner. It hadn’t been repeated into the 1990s. Nowadays the 737 seems like a dead cert for success with so many thousands of orders behind it and a legacy of more than 10 variants but at the time Boeing was taking a major gamble.
Unlike the competing products Boeing decided to forego the rear engine T-tail configuration and instead fit the engines under the wing. More importantly, to speed the development cycle, Boeing also chose to use the same fuselage cross-section as its existing family of airliners. This made it possible for the 737 to have six abreast seating and offer greater comfort than competing jets and to have nearly 80% commonality with the popular 727.
The standardisation of the fuselage also meant that airlines could standardise the internal layout of their Boeing fleets sharing seats and galleys, plus ground handling equipment. These were powerful factors in the favour of the Baby Boeing and were instrumental in enabling Lufthansa to chose the 737 over the competing DC-9 to replace its fleet of piston Convairs, Connies and turboprop Viscounts.
Despite these advantages the late arrival of the 737 onto the market, the cheapness of fuel and the glut of relatively young prop aircraft were enough to damage the initial sales of the 737. In fact the initial series 100 only achieved sales of 30 aircraft. In addition to Lufthansa’s 21 there were 5 for Malaysia-Singapore, a pair for Avianca and the prototype, which passed to NASA.
Boeing had in fact already created a second variant of the 737 before the series 100 flew for the first time. This series 200 was stretched by 1.8 metres (6 feet) increasing capacity from 100 to 115 (and later 130). These changes and the promise of commonality won over United and on April 5, 1960 they ordered 40 of the series 200. Nonetheless orders only dribbled in over the next few years and at one point Boeing considered closing the production line altogether. Fortunately Boeing’s keenness to meet customer needs and the creation of the Advanced series 200 saw the type survive and prosper into the 1970s and beyond.
The first 737-100 itself flew on April 9, 1967, Lufthansa dubbed the 737s as ‘City Jets’, a moniker they would continue to wear into the 1980s, although the 737 itself acquired several other nicknames that were less complimentary like ‘Fat Albert’ and in its early years the ‘Pig’.
Lufthansa’s first production aircraft, D-ABEC ‘Osnabruck’ was accepted in December 1967 and used for crew training at Tucson, Arizona from January 4, 1968. The first aircraft in Germany was actually D-ABED ‘Flensburg’ which arrived on February 2nd and entered service on domestic routes on February 10. The 737s were popular and Lufthansa was able to swap the 727s and 737s in their fleet as capacity demanded. All the 737-130s were delivered from February 1968 to February 1969.
Lufthansa continued its growth by ordering the series 200 as well. Deliveries of 6 convertible 737-230Cs began in December 1969 and the aircraft were registered D-ABBE-D-ABHE (with the penultimate letter changing in sequence excluding D-ABEE). Several of the series 130s saw some service with Lufthansa’s charter subsidiary Condor Flugdienst. They provided valuable service throughout the 1970s but by 1980 Lufthansa was looking to replace them.
What could replace a 737 but another 737? Lufthansa accordingly ordered a second batch of 737-230s (standard Advanced models this time) and deliveries began in May 1981 with D-ABFA. Thirty six new 230s (in the D-ABFx and D-ABHx sequence arrived up to March 1982. These were followed by a final 6 737-230s as late as 1985 (in the D-ABMx sequence) before deliveries swapped over to the newer 737-300 in 1986. Lufthansa’s association with the 737 would also include the series 430 and 530, however the switch over to the Airbus A320 family signalled the end of 737 orders with the German flag carrier.
Below: Lufthansa 737-230 D-ABFX by Gemini Jets and 737-300 D-ABXZ by Aeroclassics
The 737-130s themselves were sold on in 1981 as series 200s arrived. The majority went to the new PeoplExpress who got a great deal for these well maintained aircraft. Three aircraft (D-ABEA, B and F) went to Far Eastern Air Transport of Taiwan whilst a pair (D-ABEC and ABED) moved to America West in 1984 after leases elsewhere. Most of the PeoplExpress frames ended up in the Continental fleet and gave good service into the late 90s. One aircraft (D-ABEB) survived in service with Aero Continente of Peru into the 2000s as OB-1745.
The last revenue Lufthansa 737 service took place on October 29, 2016 when D-ABEF (a 737-300) returned to Frankfurt. The Baby Boeing has served wearing the crane of Lufthansa for 48 years and the last actual Lufthansa 737 flight (a ceremonial trip) flew Hamburg to Frankfurt two days later using D-ABEC a series 330 that shared the registration of Lufthansa’s first 737-130 all those years before.
1988. Minton, David. H. This Little Piggy Went to the Bank. Airliners no 3
1991. Davies, R.E.G. Lufthansa: An Airlines and its aircraft. Paladwr Press
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: