By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAYCapt. Bob Russo has flown for United since 1978, with nearly all of his years in the cockpit of a Boeing 737.
He loved flying the jet so much that he said he'd retire with the 737 if United ever removed the aircraft from its fleet.
Wednesday will be Russo's last day as a commercial aviation pilot.
When he lands the last leg of United Flight 737 Wednesday night at San Francisco International, his career and that of the world's best-selling commercial aircraft will draw to a close at United, the nation's No. 3 carrier.
"I never really thought I would be flying the last 737 flight," Russo says. "I intended on retiring with the aircraft, but I never really thought that I would be able to fly the last flight. It's a tremendous honor for me."
Russo says Wednesday's curtain call for the 737 at United will be both "exciting and bittersweet."
"I hate to see the airplane leave the fleet at United, but under the present economic conditions, there are a lot of decisions (like this) that have to be made to make us competitive in this industry," he says.
While the retirement of the 737 marks the end of an era at United, it also underscores a fundamental change underway in the industry.
Nearly all the nation's big airlines are shrinking, first in response to soaring fuel costs in 2008 and today in response to sagging demand for travel amid the global recession. And while some airlines say faint signs of a recovery are beginning to show, most U.S. airlines will continue to shrink into 2010.
That's forcing them to ground planes, move to smaller ones, seek more-fuel-efficient aircraft and cut costs on such items as maintenance through consolidation.
Others are trimming fleets, too
At United, the fuel crunch led to a decision last year to retire its older, less-fuel-efficient 737s at a time fuel costs had soared to record levels.
It also resulted in cutting 94 aircraft from United's fleet at a time the global economy was swooning and big U.S. airlines were forced to downsize — both in the number of seats they were making available and in personnel — to cut costs.
United President John Tague told employees in a memo that getting rid of the 737 would "dramatically simplify our fleet and reduce our maintenance liability, significantly cutting the future investment required to maintain a modern fleet at United Airlines."
United is far from alone in making sweeping cuts to both its fleet and flight schedule. All five of the nation's big so-called legacy carriers are grappling with cuts in capacity as travel demand remains weak.
American, for example, is phasing out its aging, fuel-guzzling MD-80 jets. It made its last flight with its long-haul Airbus A300 jets in August.
American plans to replace at least some of its MD-80s with Boeing's newest model of the 737 — the 737-800 jets.
American spokesman Tim Smith says the airline has taken delivery of 19 of the new 737s this year, to go with the 77 American ready has. An additional 76 will be delivered through 2011, he says.
Jon Ostrower, author of the blog FlightBlogger at flightglobal.com and who closely follows the industry, notes that a number of other U.S. airlines have made similar moves to mothball older, bigger or less-fuel-efficient aircraft.
He points to Northwest, now owned by Delta, as an example. The carrier recently retired its 1970s-era Boeing 747-200 jets.
"You see these generations of aircraft, which have always been staples in American airports, really coming out of service and going on to storage or other owners overseas," Ostrower says.
United's decision to get rid of the 737 stands in contrast to at least one of its low-cost rivals.
Southwest, which until recently has been the USA's most consistently profitable airline, flies only 737s.
The 737 model, which launched in 1968, has become the world's top-selling commercial aircraft and is regarded by many in the airline industry as the "workhorse" of commercial aviation.
Replacing 737s with Airbuses
It's hard to square United's decision to phase out the 737 and Southwest's choice to fly only 737s, Ostrower says.
"Ultimately, you're just looking at two drastically different models for how you operate an airline," he says.
Although United's 737s will be retired after Flight 737 finishes its four-leg, cross-country trek Wednesday — Dulles-O'Hare, O'Hare-Denver, Denver-Los Angeles and Los Angeles-San Francisco — the carrier has comparable jets to fill the void on domestic routes like these.
The airline can use its Airbus A319- and A320-series jets. With seating ranging from 120 to 144, United's Airbus jets roughly match the capacity that it had with its 737s.
And, because United's Airbuses are newer, they generally are more fuel- and cost-efficient than the 737s they're replacing, Ostrower says.
As for renewing its fleet, United has sought bids from both Airbus and Boeing for new planes.
United says it's evaluating options, including placing no orders, and that it expects to make a decision by the end of the year.