The pioneer of no-frills air travel

Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Southwest Airlines is the largest domestic passenger airline in the U.S. It was the first air carrier to apply the no-frills concept, a business model that has since been copied by practically all of the low-cost airlines and has allowed Southwest to turn a profit for the past 40 years. One of the keys to this success is the airline’s fleet of Boeing 737s, which at almost 700 aircraft is the largest in the world. The older -300 and -500 versions of the 737 are now approaching the end of their service lives, and MTU Maintenance is taking care of their CFM56-3 engines to make sure they can continue to operate highly efficiently for years to come.

05.2013 | Text: Andreas Spaeth

The idea to revolutionize the way we fly was born in 1966 on the back of a cocktail napkin. Herbert D. Kelleher, now 83 years old and known throughout the U.S. simply as Herb, was a lawyer in Texas at the time. In a bar in San Antonio, Kelleher and a cli­ent of his named Rollin King sketched out on that napkin a business idea for a lowcost airline to connect just the metro areas of Texas. At that time, air travel around the world was subject to stringent controls, as were interstate flights within the U.S. These controls did not, however, affect flights operated within any one of the U.S. states. After three years of legal battles with public authorities and competitors, Southwest Airlines finally commenced customer service on June 18, 1971, using three Boeing 737-200 aircraft. Southwest has always prided itself on being different from other airlines. Back in the 1970s, it grabbed customers’ attention not just by running bold advertising campaigns and kitting its flight attendants out in hot pants, but more importantly by offering low fares and paring its service down to the bare essentials. “When I worked on the concept of Southwest Airlines in 1966 only about 15 percent of American adults had ever flown on even a single commercial airline flight,” Kelleher remembers. “Today that number stands at about 85 percent.” The airline he founded certainly played a major role in this development. Successful low-cost carriers op­er­ating on other continents, such as Ryanair in Europe, today continue to acknowledge Southwest as having been their role model.

Over the years, this Dallas-based airline would grow to become the most profitable carrier in the U.S., as well as one of the country’s largest. In its 42-year history, there have been only two quarters in which the company failed to turn a profit. These days, Southwest still exclusively serves shorthaul domestic routes; last year, the airline’s 694 Boeing 737s carried a total of 109 million passengers. In 2011, Southwest took the number three spot globally in terms of passenger numbers, behind Delta and American, and in 2012 profits totaled 417 million U.S. dollars. Including the route net­work of its subsidiary Air Tran, the airline serves 97 destinations in 41 states and op­er­ates around 3,520 flights a day, offering everything from short hops within Texas to coast-to-coast flights from Baltimore to Los Angeles. Each Southwest aircraft performs an average of six flights a day, spending a total of ten hours and 55 minutes in the air—figures that are top in the industry. From its very beginnings, Southwest has always put a premium on simplicity, a philosophy that even extends to how the fleet is struc­tured. With brief exceptions, it has historically operated an all-Boeing 737 fleet. “The 737 is a marvelous airplane, but we wouldn’t have bought so many of them if we weren’t quite pleased with them,” says Kelleher.

Southwests Boeing 737-Flotte ist die größte der Welt. Für die älteren Versionen beginnt jetzt das Ende ihres Lebenszyklus.


MTU Maintenance Canada




On a growth track: MTU Maintenance Canada, located near Vancover.


Engines in the shop at MTU Maintenance Canada.


A CFM56-3 engine undergoes maintenance.


Inspections and repairs of electrical harnesses are also carried out in the Accessory Repair Centre.


Inspection of a bearing nut.

Again and again, Southwest Airlines was the launch customer for new 737 variants. Just as it was first in line for the -300, -500 and -700 versions, the Dallas-based carrier will be the first to receive the 737 MAX 8: Delivery of the first of the 150 aircraft it has ordered is slated for 2017. Meanwhile, Southwest’s 128 Boeing 737-300 jets as well as 20 Boeing 737-500s are approaching the end of their life cycles. “Southwest has a very fluid exit plan for the 737 Classic fleet which depends on many variables,” says Mandy Gower, Powerplant Supply Chain Manager at Southwest. One of these is the long-term contract with MTU Maintenance, under which the company will see the CFM56-3 engines of the older 737s through to the finish line. “The numbers have to work for us, only by keeping maintenance expenses low, Southwest is able to justify the continued operation of the 737 Classic fleet,” adds Gower. “MTU Maintenance Canada is a big part of the total efficiency of our Classic fleet.”

The principle involved is a simple one: “When an aircraft is withdrawn from service, this doesn’t necessarily mean the engines are retired, too,” explains Christoph Heck, Vice President, Marketing and Sales, The Americas (SMW) at MTU Maintenance Hannover. “They are repaired and overhauled to make them as good as new.” But with the transition to a new generation of aircraft, demand for overhauled CFM56-3 en­gines is declining. This is why some of Southwest’s CFM56-3s will serve as a source of spare parts for the maintenance of other engines of the same type. “In a nutshell, two engines become one, without compromising engine quality or safety in any way,” says Heck. “Low-cost airlines are incredibly creative in finding ways to keep costs down, but they certainly don’t cut corners when it comes to safety.” Gower adds: “The focus is on harvesting material from owned assets. MTU Maintenance Canada currently tears down our CFM56-3s, routes parts out for repairs, stocks parts and incorporates those owned parts into our repair engines. This cycle minimizes or eliminates the need to purchase new parts which keeps overhaul costs very low.”

Die MTU Maintenance Canada hält neben CFM56-Triebwerken auch CF6-Antriebe instand.

Overhaul of the engines takes place at MTU’s Vancouverbased facility, where capacity has recently been expanded. Dan Watson, Chief Commercial Officer at MTU Maintenance Canada: “Southwest is utilizing nearly the entire portfolio of MTU Maintenance, including MTU’s on-site support through our Dallas facility opened in 2011.” Watson underlines that “MTU, as the largest independent maintenance pro­vider in the world, has both the resources and experience to support Southwest in all areas. As a low-cost carrier, Southwest maintains very lean overheads and focuses on integrated solutions for its supply chains—and MTU can offer such customized so­lu­tions.”

MTU Newsletter
MTU Newsletter

Receive regular updates on excellent service and top technology “made by MTU” with our newsletter, which also features a range of topics from the wider world of aviation.

You may also be interested in these articles:

20 years of MTU Maintenance Canada

10.2018 | Over the past two decades, MTU Maintenance Canada—a wholly owned subsidiary of MTU Aero Engines—has over­hauled more than 1,100 engines in its shop. “We’re very proud of our long success streak,” says Managing Director Helmut Neuper.

Brazilian high-flyer

05.2014 | GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes is the world’s fourth-largest low-cost airline, with over 40 million passengers carried annually. The success story began in 2001 when the airline started operations with six Boeing 737s.

Tried-and-tested engines

11.2017 | Despite the increasing use of computer simu­lations in the avi­ation industry, tests on real engines and compo­nents are still vitally important. MTU’s worldwide infrastructure of test cells is essential to its engine production and main­tenance activities.