A step-up replacement for the Boeing 737-500, the 737-600 is another one of Boeing’s examples of an aircraft that didn’t know its market and fell into a hole. The aircraft was to be the shortest variant of the 737 Next Generation family, and was predicated on the idea of delivering an aircraft small enough to land at regional airports in the same fashion as STOL aircraft. However, what resulted was an aircraft far too big for its purpose and too small to earn back its operational costs.
To trace the 737-600, you need to look back at its ancestor, the 737-500. Launched in 1989, the 737-500’s job was to replace many ageing Boeing 737-200’s that dated back to the 1970’s, and it worked very well; with several hundred examples sold worldwide. The 737-600 derives much of its technology from its predecessor, including being the same length but seating a smaller capacity at only 130 passengers as opposed to the -500’s 140 passengers. The aircraft also differed by way of having an updated powerplant, consisting of two CFM56-7B18, 20 or 22 series engines; giving the aircraft a range of 3,200 miles.
The concept behind the Boeing 737 was to provide customers with a familiar design that would allow them to tap into the lucrative regional airport and inner city airport market; the aircraft’s overall principles being to remove as much weight as possible so as to allow it to operate from shorter than normal strips. The project was seen to be a double-edged sword for Boeing, allowing them to supply airlines with the perfect aircraft for regional operations while not requiring them to design an entirely new range of aircraft.
The 737-600 was first delivered to launch customer Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in September 1998, but Boeing’s gamble on the regional airport market very quickly backfired when the first sales reports rolled across the boardroom table. The 737-600 proved immediately to fall into a very large chasm in the marketplace as it was too big to operate into and out of smaller airfields in the same way as dedicated STOL aircraft like the BAe 146 and De Havilland Dash 8, but was also too small to occupy a profitable role out of regular airports. There were also issues of noise abatement and maintenance, with the -600 being just as loud and just as expensive to operate as the other members of its family; while STOL aircraft are predicated on their ease of maintenance and comparatively low noise levels.
While the 737-600 did find a niche with airlines such as SAS and Westjet, where their smaller size allowed them use on lower-demand flights to the remote regions of Norway, Sweden and Canada, this wasn’t enough to reverse the aircraft’s fortunes. Eventually, only 69 of these aircraft were built by the time the aircraft was removed from the sales roster in August 2012; the last example having been delivered way back in 2006.
In the face of the 737-600’s abysmal sales, Airbus attempted to do the same by creating the Airbus A318, essentially an equivalent ‘baby’ model for the extremely popular Airbus A320 family. Upon its launch in 2002, the A318 was utterly trounced in the sales department for the exact same reasons as the 737-600, but was able to sell a few more units than Boeing over the course of its short production life.
While the 737-600 could only garner a measly 69 sales, this doesn’t, however, mean it was a bad aircraft. Reliability levels for the -600 are among the highest for the 737 family, and as of October 2018, no units have been lost through accidents. While many examples remain in operation, several early units have been scrapped by SAS as they are replaced by younger and more efficient Airbus A320neo. Though SAS haven’t stated when the -600 will be retired completely, it will likely be by the early 2020’s at the latest; with expectations being these less than life-expired aircraft will be immediately stripped for parts and scrapped like the Airbus A318 due to their woefully bad resale value.
At least things at Westjet are a bit more rosier, as the Canadian company, for the moment, hasn’t considered retirement of the -600’s as part of their fleet strategy for the time being; though the day will likely come as the new 737-Max series of aircraft become more prevalent.
Another use for the 737-600 is with Janet, an airline operated by AECOM on behalf of the United States Air Force to ferry government officials to and from the secret Nevada National Security Site 65 miles north of Las Vegas; better known to you and I as Area 51. The Janet fleet comprises of six distinctive red and white 737-600’s of which many are second-hand from China Airlines, and operate from a high-security terminal at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. The Janet 737-600 was notable for its appearance in 2006’s Flight Simulator X (FSX), where one of the default missions was to fly the Janet service from Las Vegas to Area 51 while also dodging UFO’s!
While it is a shame that the 737-600 failed to make it big in the highly competitive aviation market, it was a concept that was doomed to failure. The aircraft was simply too big, too noisy and too expensive to meet the specific criteria of the regional airport market, while at the same time it was too small to make it a useful asset on mainline operations out of larger airports. Perhaps if it had been marketed as a facelift for the 737-500 and was marketed as simply the smallest member of the 737 Next Generation range it could’ve garnered more success. But, as is, the aircraft did at the very least find some major customers to help stop it for being a complete and utter failure, and it continues to fly today as a reliable and dependable little plane for those who operate it.