On June 14, 2020, ANA operated its last commercial Boeing 737-500 flight. That left only the Next-Generation “-700s” and “-800s.” in its fleet. Considering that JAL and other Japanese airlines nowadays only operate the Next-Generation 737s as well, the era of 737 Classics in Japan came to an end.
While I didn’t have a chance to fly on the last flight, I was fortunate enough to catch one of ANA’s 737-500s on a short hop from Fukuoka to Osaka back in March. In this article, I will take you onboard that flight.
Before doing so, though, I will dive into the history of Boeing 737s in ANA’s fleet, starting in the late-1960s when the airline introduced the type into its fleet for the first time.
ANA and the 737s: From the “-200” to “Super Dolphins”
In May 1964, ANA put its first jet aircraft into service, a Boeing 727-100. For the next 26 years, this tri-jet as well as its stretched -200 version first acquired by the airline in October 1969 formed the backbone of its short-haul fleet. ANA operated its last 727-100 flight in May 1974 while the 727-200 remained in its fleet until April 1990.
A few months before placing its first 727-200 into service, in June 1969, ANA also took delivery of its first twinjet, a Boeing 737-200 registered JA8401. Among other things, the aircraft was meant to replace the airline’s aging Fokker F-27 Friendship and Vickers Viscount turboprops. ANA (or one of its subsidiaries) has been continuously operating one version of the 737 or another since then.
As for the 737-200, at the peak, ANA operated over 20 airframes of the type. About half a dozen of those were passed on to new owners outside Japan in 1976 with a few more following in 1979. ANA continued operating the remaining airframes until 1992 at which point about ten of them were transferred to the airline’s now-defunct subsidiary, Air Nippon, and the remainder to other owners.
In 1995, Air Nippon received its first brand new aircraft, a Boeing 737-500 – or, more precisely a 737-55L with “5L” being the airline’s customer code. Having dolphin decals on their engines, the 737-500s were nicknamed “Super Dolphins,” a nickname that stuck with them until their retirement in 2020.
Five years after the first “Super Dolphin” joined Air Nippon’s fleet, in 2000, the airline retired its last 737-200.
Around the same time, it also acquired its first 737-400, an airframe manufactured in 1990 and originally delivered to Futura Airways. Being designated for use on a route connecting Tokyo with the metropolis’ outlying island of Hachijojima, the 737-400 was nicknamed “Island Dolphin.” It was registered JA391K, and it not only sported the same dolphin decals as the 737-500 but was also wearing a colorful livery with a large dolphin covering the front half of its fuselage.
One more 737-400, this time a former Virgin Express airframe first delivered in 1997, joined Air Nippon’s fleet in September 2001. The aircraft, registered 392K, replaced JA391K as the airframe used on the Tokyo – Hachijojima route. From that point onwards, the original 737-400 was based in Fukuoka and operated flights to Tsushima, Fukue, and Komatsu among others.
The two 737-400s were transferred to Hokkaido International Airlines (today’s Air Do) in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Later on, they spent a few years with Skynet Asia Airlines, the predecessor of Solaseed Air.
ANA and the 737s: Going Next Generation
ANA began the process of modernizing its narrow-body fleet in June 2003 when it placed a firm order for 45 Boeing 737NGs. Initially, all of the aircraft on order were 737-700s. However, at a later point, ANA converted most of the order to 737-800s and ended up only receiving 18 of the smaller “-700.”
The first aircraft from this order, a 737-700 registered JA01AN, was delivered to the airline in November 2005. It was not only the first Next-Generation 737 for the airline but also the first one to be delivered to Japan overall.
To celebrate the occasion, ANA painted the aircraft (as well as the second one registered JA02AN) in a special “Gold Jet” livery.
It is also worth noting that ANA was the world’s sole operator of the 737-700ER, an extended range version based on the Boeing Business Jet.
The airline operated two airframes, deploying the first one (JA10AN, 24 business and 20 economy class seats) on Nagoya – Guangzhou route from March 25, 2007, and the second one (JA13AN, 38 business class seats) on Tokyo Narita – Mumbai route from September 1, 2007. Both of these aircraft stayed in service with the airline until March 2016.
Between 2012 and 2016, eight of the 16 regular 737-700 were transferred to Air Do. One of those, the very first JA01AN, returned into ANA’s fleet in 2019. This time around, wearing the regular “Triton Blue” livery. With that, eight 737-700s remain in ANA’s fleet today.
ANA’s first 737-800, JA51AN, was delivered to the airline in 2008. Currently, ANA operates 39 airframes, and the 737-800 forms the backbone of its narrow-body fleet.
Those 39 include four aircraft leased in 2018 to provide substitute capacity for the delayed Mitsubishi Regional Jets that ANA has on order. Worth noting is that those four are 737-8ALs rather than 737-881s, reflecting the Boeing customer code of BOC Aviation, the leasing company that owns the aircraft.
Goodbye, “Super Dolphins!”
Going back to the classics, at the beginning of 2020, ANA–more specifically its subsidiary ANA Wings–operated its last three 737-500s. At the end of 2019, it added bouquet decals next to the dolphins on these three airframes’ engine cowlings to commemorate their nearing retirement.
The first two of the airframes to leave the fleet were JA305K and JA307K both of which were stored in March 2020.
The last one to leave the fleet was JA306K which had the honor of operating the last Japan-registered 737 Classic flight. That flight took place on June 14, 2020, transporting 127 lucky passengers from Fukuoka to Tokyo Haneda as flight NH254.
Flying on the Last ANA 737-500 Before Its Retirement
While I didn’t have a chance to be on the last flight, I was fortunate to have flown on an ANA 737-500 earlier in the year, in March. As mentioned in the introduction, the flight took me from Fukuoka to Osaka Itami and gave me my first and last opportunity to fly on the “Super Dolphin.”
After arriving at Fukuoka airport on an Oriental Air Bridge Q200 (another highlight of the trip), I had a quick lunch and then spent some time relaxing in Kutsurogi no Time Lounge which I could access with one of my credit cards.
I left the lounge, located landside, around 3PM, and went through security in no time. Airside, I walked over to gate 12 at the very end of the terminal where my flight was scheduled to depart at 3:55PM.
Outside, JA307K–one of the three 737-500s remaining in ANA’s fleet at the time–was parked waiting for its passengers. Inside, passengers were gathered around the gate waiting for boarding to start.
While most likely had no idea what type they would be flying on, there were a few enthusiasts with cameras as well.
Boarding started at 3:34PM, about 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time, with passengers requiring assistance and those traveling with children being the first to be invited onboard. My boarding group, group 3, followed just a couple of minutes later.
Cabin and Seats
Onboard, I settled in my left-hand side window seat, 8A, which offered a great view of one of the aircraft’s two CFM56 engines. While the cabin was in great shape, it was amazing how old a 737-500 can seem these days with its traditional overhead panel and an almost rectangular window.
Before continuing with the flight itself, I’ll note that the aircraft was in an all-economy-class configuration featuring 126 seats in 3-3 rows.
The legroom was generous and each seat was equipped with an air vent. Because of coronavirus, the seat pocket included only a safety card and a waste bag. In-flight magazines were available on request.
The cabin crew closed the doors at 3:46PM, and at 3:49PM–six minutes ahead of schedule–we were pushed back. At that point, about 70% of the seats were occupied.
We started taxiing for departure at 3:54PM, and at 3:59PM, we took off from runway 16.
Less than ten minutes after departure, the seatbelt signs were switched off. Shortly after that, one of the pilots welcomed us onboard.
He mentioned that we were flying over Oita Prefecture at an altitude of 25,000 feet, and that we would soon be overflying Shikoku. He also noted that we were expecting to land at Osaka Itami airport, where it was 12 degrees Celsius and sunny, at 5PM sharp.
While there was no drink service on this short flight, at 4:20PM, one of the flight attendants made an announcement mentioning that we would be starting descent in about 15 minutes.
She also mentioned that the 737-500 would be retiring at the end of June and that stickers commemorating the occasion would be handed out to those interested. Of course, I had to get one.
We started descending at 4:26PM, and ten minutes later the seatbelt signs were switched back on. At that point, we were flying by Kansai International Airport, Osaka’s international gateway which is actually located in the neighboring Wakayama Prefecture.
At 4:44PM, the cockpit crew lowered the landing gear, and at 4:47PM, we landed on runway 32L.
From there, it was just three minutes until we reached our parking spot. Coming to a full stop at 4:50PM, we arrived 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Wanting to take some photos of the aircraft’s cabin, I waited until everyone disembarked. Once I was done, I bid the crew a farewell and got off the aircraft wondering when I’d have another chance to fly on the ever rarer 737 Classic.
Back when I started to be more actively interested in aviation, 737 Classics were some of the most common aircraft to be seen at airports around the world. Over the last decade or so, however, they turned into a rare breed.
As such, I was happy to hitch a ride on one of ANA’s “Super Dolphins” before their retirement. Considering how few airlines operate the 737-500 and other 737 Classics nowadays, it will likely be a while before I can fly on one again.
When it comes to ANA, the 737 still remains and for the foreseeable future will be the backbone of its narrow-body fleet.
In fact, beyond the 737-700s and 737-800s that the airline operates now, it also has 20 737 MAX 8s on order with options for further 10. Those are expected to be delivered between April 2021 and March 2026. However, with the issues related to the type and the COVID-19-related crisis still in full swing, it remains to be seen whether the original delivery schedule will be upheld.