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The incredible history of the Boeing 737, the best-selling airliner of all time

Business Insider Australia logo Business Insider Australia 13/06/2018 Benjamin Zhang

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  • The Boeing 737 is the best-selling airliner of all time.
  • Through May, Boeing has taken 14,725 orders for the plane.
  • Since 2011, the new 737 MAX has won more than 4,500 orders, making it the fastest-selling aeroplane in Boeing history.
  • Since its debut in 1967, the 737 has become a mainstay for airlines around the world in a number of roles, ranging from short-haul flights to transatlantic airliner.
  • The 737 is also deployed as a freighter and in military applications.

The Boeing 737 is ubiquitous. If you've taken a commercial flight in the past 50 years, there's a good chance it was on a Boeing 737.

That's because Boeing has sold a whole lot of them. Since 1965, the American aviation giant has taken orders for a whopping 14,725 737s. In April, Boeing delivered the 10,000th 737, a new MAX 8 model, to Southwest Airlines.

To put that into perspective, Boeing's second-best-selling plane, the wide-body 777, has received a little fewer than 2,000 orders. But it should be noted that the long-haul Boeing 777 costs several times more than the 737 and is used in different segments of the airline market.

Over the years, the Boeing 737 has proved itself to be a faithful workhorse for airlines around the world. Its versatility is nothing short of astounding. What debuted in 1967 as a 50-seat regional jet has now spawned 220-plus-seat variants capable of transatlantic travel.

With the introduction of the MAX, Boeing's long-serving 737 is set to fly on well past its 70th birthday.

Yet the Boeing sales team will have to work hard for the 737 to maintain its crown. The rival Airbus A320 is nipping at its heels. Through May, Airbus has orders for 14,228 A320 family jets.

Here's a closer look at the incredible history of the Boeing 737.

In 1964, Boeing began work on a 50-to-60 seat narrow-body airliner designed for trips between 50 and 1,000 miles. It would also be roughly half the size Boeing's smallest jet at the time, the 727.

At the time, Boeing was best known for its larger jets like the 707 and ...

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The eight-engine B-52 bomber.

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As a result, the plane that launched in January 1967 became known as the Baby Boeing. The original 737 is what we would today call a regional jet.

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To save time, Boeing allowed the 737 to share the same upper half of the fuselage as the larger 707 and 727. As a result, the cabin of the Baby Boeing is the same width as the company's larger jets. This means six-abreast seating.

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Something the 737 retains to this day.

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This gave the 737 an advantage over its rival, the Douglas DC-9, which had five seats per row.

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The 737's original customers include launch customer Lufthansa, United, and Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, the predecessor to today's Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

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In December 1967, Boeing delivered the first production 737-100 to Lufthansa. The plane eventually earned the nickname Bobby, after a character in a children's book the airline would hand out to young passengers.

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The original Boeing 737 prototype never entered commercial service and instead spent a couple of decades as a NASA test platform. The plane can now be found at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

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The 737-200 is based on the Dash 100, but with a slightly longer fuselage. The first Dash 200 was delivered to launch customer United Airlines a day after Lufthansa received its first 737-100. The 737-100/200 was powered by Pratt & Whitney's venerable JT8D low-bypass turbofan engines.

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The Boeing 737-200 remained in production until 1988.

In 1981, Boeing launched the second generation 737, dubbed the Classic. The new planes would come with CFM56 high-bypass turbofan engines that were quieter, more efficient, and more powerful than the units found on the Dash 100/200.

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The 737 Classic comes in three variants. The 126-seat 737-300, the 147-seat 737-400, and the 110-seat 737-500. The Dash 300 proved to be the most popular of the three with more than 1,000 sold.

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In the mid-1980s, the marketplace for narrow-body airliners experienced a seismic shift with the introduction of the Airbus A320-family. The European Airbus finally gave the 737 a true rival.

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In reaction to this threat, Boeing launched the third-generation 737 in 1993. The Boeing 737-600,-700,-800,-900, and -900ER would become known as the Next Generation, or NG.

The 149-seat 737-700 launched in November 1993.

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It was followed by the 189-seat 737-800 in September 1994.

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That was followed by the 132-seat 737-600 and ...

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The 220 seat 737-900/900ER.

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The 737 has proved itself to be popular around the world, from American Airlines ...

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To Lion Air in Indonesia ...

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To Gol in Brazil.

But there's no Boeing 737 customer more important than Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based low-cost carrier operates a fleet of more than 700 737s.

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Here is the 10,000th Boeing 737 ever built. It will spend its service life flying for Southwest.

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Irish ultra-low-cost carrier Ryanair is also a major 737 operator with a fleet of more than 400 planes.

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Over the years, the Boeing 737's affordability and reliability have made it a popular option for startup airlines.

Its versatility has also seen it go into military service as both a transport and ...

A tactical aircraft like the P8 Poseidon submarine hunter.

There's even a freighter version.

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In 2011, Boeing launched the fourth-generation 737 called the MAX. The newest 737 comes with state-of-the-art CFM LEAP 1B turbofan engines, new wings, and avionics.

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It comes in four variants. The lineup ranges from the 172-seat MAX 7 to ...

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The 230-seat MAX 10. With more than 4,500 orders so far, the 737 MAX is the fastest-selling Boeing aeroplane of all time.

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All this means Boeing's Renton, Washington, plant, where the 737 is assembled, will remain a busy place.

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