The success of the 737 has been immense but at the time of its development it had a mountain to climb. It would be United Airlines, more than any other, that Boeing has to thank for getting the type past its rough early years to where it is today and the ‘Fat Little Ugly Fella’ i.e. FLUF certainly put in the hard yards over the years for United.
United in the early 1960s was the largest airline in the USA (and free world), thanks to its takeover of Capital Airlines, and had an insatiable need for new aircraft, jet aircraft. It still operated a sizeable fleet of Douglas DC-6s, DC-7s, Convair 340s and turboprop Vickers Viscounts, which would need replacing soon. The airline’s initial search for a short-haul jetliner had led it to the French Sud-Aviation Caravelle, of which 20 were acquired in 1961/62, but obviously United preferred to buy from American manufacturers when a suitable product was available.
By 1964 true short-haul jetliners were finally coming into shape for both Douglas and Boeing. Douglas had launched the DC-9 the year earlier but Boeing was still in the development phase for what would become its Boeing 737. United had already acquired both Boeing 720s and 727-22s so it is perhaps no surprise that it chose the 737-200, however at the time the Douglas DC-9 product was better established in the market and seen as the front runner for any United purchase.
Boeing was chasing the pack but made several fateful decisions that would stand the 737 in good stead. The initial T-tail, rear engine design was modified to the familiar under-wing configuration and this allowed Boeing 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, offer greater comfort than competing jets and to have nearly 80% commonality with the popular 727.
Even so coming late to the party Boeing rather struggled to sell its new 737 and indeed launched the initial series 100 variant with a foreign airline, namely Lufthansa. This was the first time this had happened but it did illustrate that most of the US airlines had already decided on either the Douglas DC-9 or BAC One-Eleven.
Boeing had 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, the wider fuselage and the promise of commonality won over United and on April 5, 1965 they ordered 40 of the series 200.
The series 200 flew for the first time on August 8, 1967 and was certified only a few months later on December 21. United put its first 737-222 into service on April 28, 1968 between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. United was obviously very happy with the performance of its 737s as it took delivery of a lot more than the initial 40. 75 joined the fleet by the end of October 1979.
114 737-200s were delivered in 1969 but orders slowed dramatically thereafter and in 1970 Boeing did consider closing the production line. In the end this wasn’t necessary and the improved 737-200 Advanced version, plus orders from the US Air Force for T-43s helped stimulate orders and keep the line open.
Even so in the USA at least the 737 still had one major disadvantage, not of the aircraft’s making. It was designed for a two-man crew (as was the competing DC-9) but the Airline Pilots Union (ALPA) made this a major issue for the type (whilst ignoring the DC-9). ALPA insisted that the two-man 737 fly with a three-man crew. This was despite the fact there was no flight engineer position in the 737. The FE instead used the jump seat and read the checklist and operated some switches.
This was a major factor in limiting orders among the US airlines. ALPA insisted it was a safety issue partly using the rationale that United had used a three-man crew on its Caravelles (which again only required two people) and flew into small cities with lots of general aviation traffic, which needed more eyes for safe operations. United, along with other ALPA airlines (Western, Frontier and Piedmont) had to fly its 737s with three men crews.
This may have been a factor in United actually selling 7 737s between 1971 and 1973 and removing a further 7 in 1975/76, and 10 more in 1980/81. United suffered a strike in 1979 and soon afterwards reduced a lot of its shorter routes of less than 250/300 miles, especially from Cleveland. Many of these were turned over to regional partners but regardless that led to more 737s being out of work and probably equates for the ten sold in the early years of deregulation.
It wasn’t until 1982 that economic and industry pressures saw the end of the 3-man crew rule at United. In fact, this opened up the airline to acquire further 737s and in late 1985 they bought 23 of Frontier’s best 737-291 Advanced and 2 2A1 Advanced 737s, from the desperate airline. These aircraft were all built from 1978 onwards and offered all the improvements that had come with the Advanced series, such as greater fuel capacity and more powerful engines.
United’s 737-200s soldiered on through the 1990s as much newer 737-300s and 500s joined the fleet. The last of the original 737-222s was retired in 1999. The newer ex-Frontier aircraft continued in service past the millennium but were victims of the fleet reduction in the aftermath of September 11 and all were out of service by 2002. It would be only 7 years later that the last of United’s 737-300s and 500s would be retired, but of course the Continental merger brought a massive 737NG fleet back into United service.
Despite some initial challenges the 737 has obviously gone on to prove itself the most versatile workhorse, however without United’s initial large order it is hard to see how the type could have survived through the 1970s. Fat Albert sure did good.
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: