Which Boeing 737 Variants Did South African Airways Operate?

When it comes to single-aisle jetliners, Airbus and Boeing have forged a strong duopoly with their A320 and 737 families. While certain airlines opt for a one-type fleet, others, such as South African Airways, have operated both simultaneously. Indeed, SAA flew the 737 for more than half a century, during which it served the carrier alongside A320 family members. But which exact variants of the popular 737 did SAA operate during this time?

SAA Boeing 737
Many ex-SAA 737-800s ended up at Mango Airlines. Photo: Ercan Karakas via Wikimedia Commons

The original 737-200s

According to Planespotters.net, South African Airways has operated 53 aircraft from the extensive Boeing 737 portfolio over the years. Of these, the first and most popular variant was the 737-200, from Boeing’s so-called ‘737 Original’ series.

SAA flew a total of 29 737-200s, which it acquired to replace the likes of the Vickers Viscount and the Boeing 727. Among these aircraft were two cargo-carrying 737-200s, which, as we shall see, also set a precedent for SAA using later 737 variants to carry freight. Meanwhile, the 27 passenger examples featured 20 business class seats and 87 in economy class.

All in all, SAA operated examples of the 737-200 for a period spanning some 45 years! Having received its first 737-200 in 1968, it did not dispose of its last until 2013. It even took eight deliveries of (second-hand) 737-200s during the 2000s.

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SAA 737-200
The 737-200 featured in SAA’s fleet in one way or another for 45 years! Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Modernizing with the 737-800

In terms of aircraft from the more modern 737NG (Next generation) family, SAA flew a total of 21 737-800s between 2000 and 2018. It ordered these all in one go, amounting to around $680 million ($1.055 billion today). They seated 157 passengers, split between 32 business class seats, and a 125-seat economy class cabin.

SAA’s 21 737-800s arrived at the airline between June 2000 and November 2006. Coincidentally, November 2006 also saw the first example leave the fleet. SAA’s last 737-800 departure took place in June 2018. 16 of them went to low-cost subsidiary Mango. The other five went to FlySafair (South Africa, three examples) and Firefly (Malaysia, two examples).

Last to leave – the 737-300SF

The last 737 variant to depart SAA’s fleet was the cargo configured 737-300SF. The airline operated three of these aircraft, with the first pair arriving on a lease from Irish lessor GECAS in the summer of 2007. They were already around 15 years old at this point, having both entered service with China Southwest Airlines in September and October 1992.

South African Cargo Boeing 737-300SF
One of South African Cargo’s three 737-300SFs. Photo: Maarten Visser via Wikimedia Commons

SAA’s third and final 737-300SF spent just two years at the airline, and was outlasted by the original pair. It served SAA from June 2016 to December 2018, before returning to its lessor, fellow South African carrier Star Air. SAA then eventually withdrew its original pair of 737-300SFs in February 2020, placing them into storage in Johannesburg.

Today, SAA’s short-haul fleet consists of just three Airbus A319s. These aircraft are relatively old, with an average age of 16.3 years. This, combined with SAA’s recent financial struggles, spells an uncertain future for them. That being said, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel, with SAA having recently left bankruptcy protection after 17 months. For now, it is hoping that it will be able to recommence operations before September.

How many SAA 737s did you fly on? Did you have a particular favorite? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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