The Workhorse of the Skies Is Being Put Out to Pasture
As summer draws to a close, American Airlines Group Inc. is hastening the pace at which it sends aged McDonnell Douglas MD-80s to the aircraft boneyard. Five years into a revamp of its fleet, the world’s largest carrier on Tuesday will retire 20 MD-80-family aircraft, “one of the largest single-day aircraft retirements in airline history,” according to American.
“Summer is the busiest time of the year for airlines, and with summer flying winding down, we can go ahead and park these aircraft,” the company said in a statement. The planes being sent today to the Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico are, on average, 28 years old, about five years older than the carrier’s overall MD-80 fleet.
American plans to retire 45 MD-80s this year, most of them in the third quarter, and be rid of all of them by the end of 2018 as part of a fleet renewal project. Economically, the MD-80 is no match for the newer Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 family of aircraft that have replaced it. American, which ordered 460 new Airbus Group SE and Boeing Co. jets in 2011, says the 737-800 and A321 jets replacing the MD-80 are 35 percent more fuel efficient on a per-seat basis.
Two other U.S. MD-80 operators, Delta Air Lines Inc. and Allegiant Travel Co., both plan to quit the jet in the next few years. Delta’s 116 MD-80s have an average age of 25.9 years.
The MD-80 is a modernized version of the Douglas DC-9, which gained range and weight capabilities in the DC-9 80, dubbed by McDonnell Douglas as the Super 80 Series. The first Super 80 (a moniker only American chose to retain among U.S. carriers) flew in October 1979. American took its first of the 140-seat jets four years later, and at its peak had nearly 375 of them in service—the largest operator of the almost 1,200 MD-80s sold to airlines across the globe. Later variants added fuel and performance enhancements.
The model has enjoyed a strong safety record, with two of the most high-profile MD-80 crashes attributed to human error. In August 2008, a Spanair MD-82 crashed while departing Madrid, killing 154 people, after pilots had incorrectly configured the plane for takeoff. In January 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-83 crashed off the California coast while trying to divert to Los Angeles. The accident was blamed on improper maintenance, which caused a key horizontal stabilizer component to fail in flight. That crash killed 88. Last year, a Delta Air Lines MD-80 slid off a snowy runway while landing in New York City. No one was injured seriously.
Pilots who fly the MD-80 cite the airplane's quirks but praise it for a mix of old-school flight controls and modern technology. Aviation enthusiasts occasionally refer to it as the “mad dog” owing to the MD designation, or even the “angry puppy.”
“You really earn your pay,” flying the MD-80, an American pilot told Bloomberg Businessweek in a 2008 interview. In a twitter message today, the airline was more wistful: