Mad Dog: The MD-80 Story

In February 1965, The Douglas Corporation launched their first short haul jet airliner. At the same time, Douglas had only the Douglas DC-8 in service, a long haul airliner that was seeing wide spread sales, but lacking compared to Boeing’s 707 product.

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The British built BAC 1-11 was the main competition of the Douglas DC-9, the British had introduced the 1-11 two years earlier.

Boeing had yet to launch its Boeing 737-100 product (which would fly in 1967), but already had the Boeing 727 trijet in service, from Europe the British had launched the BAC 1-11 in 1963 and the French had launched the Sud Aviation Carravelle in 1955, across behind the Iron Curtain- Russia had for the last two years been introducing the Tupelov TU-134.

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The upgraded variant of the original DC-9, the MD-80 was a stretched & upgraded version of the DC 9-51, an example seen here.

United Airlines was already using the Sud Aviation Caravelle and Boeing 727. American Airlines, Aloha Airlines, Braniff International and Allegheny Airlines were using fleets of BAC 1-11.

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The arch rival to the MD-80 and its DC-9 predessesor for most of its career has been the Boeing 737, the 737-200 and DC 9-30 cemented a US Duopoly during the 1970s/1980s.

Not wanting to be left behind- Douglas launched the DC-9 short haul airliner to provide a smaller jet airliner to replace older generation short haul and city hopper aircraft like the Douglas DC-3 (the best selling aircraft of all time), Junkers JU-52 and the Vickers Viscount.

Spanning a production length from 1965 to 1982 the Douglas DC-9 saw in models that included the -10, -20, -30 (the most sold model of the type), -40 and -50. However the early 1980’s saw the short haul market narrow down to a duopoly of Boeing (with the 737-200) and McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, as European manufacturers began to fall behind their more economically superior American rivals.

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Due to their age, fuel price hikes and maintenance costs, the MD-80 has seen wide spread retirement since 2005. These planes were seen stored at Stockholm Arlanda in February 2015.

With airlines wanting better fuel efficiency and bigger aircraft following the deregulation of the United States domestic airspace, McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing both upgraded their products. Boeing came out with the Boeing 737-Classic family, which consisted of two larger models of the 737-200 (the -300 & -400) and the 737-500 all of which had modern cabin and cockpit designs and better engine efficiency with the plane receiving shorter and larger engines.

McDonnell-Douglas beat Boeing, they decided to upgrade the DC-9-51 by making the fuselage longer and the engines being replaced by more up to date versions of the Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines used on the DC-9. Initially the company was to use the DC-9 Super 80 brand for this aircraft, but following the Douglas Company being merged with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation led to the creation of the company McDonnell-Douglas and the plane eventually became the McDonnell-Douglas MD-81.

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SAS was the final major European airline to operate the MD-80, replacing the type with Airbus A320-ceo and Boeing 737-800 in October 2013.

The launch customer for this type was a long time DC-9 operator was the leading European airline SWISSAIR. Taking their first MD-81 in September 1980. Other major European airlines that followed suit by introducing the MD-80 to replace their older DC-9 aircraft included: SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Finnair, Alitalia, Iberia, Spanair, Crossair and Austrian Airlines.

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SAS operated ten models of the DC-9/MD-80 family from 1967 to 2013.

In the United States, the company made a deal with American Airlines persuading the major US carrier to order 20 planes for delivery in 1983, the airline was impressed by the aircraft and in 1984 the airline ordered 167 aircraft (67 confirmed and 100 options), using the MD-82 & MD-83 models. At its peak- the airline operated 362 MD-80’s (a large number acquired in mergers during the late 1990s).

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The American Airlines MD-80 cabin from a flight in January 2018.

Other major airlines in the US and Latin America to use the MD-80 included: Delta Airlines (who is still operating the MD-88 until 2020), Alaska Airlines (retired the MD-83 in 2009), AeroMexico, Allegiant Air (operated second hand MD-80’s until Nov 2018), Trans World Airlines (until its 2001 merger with American), Reno Air (merged into American), Avianca (retired in 2010), Pacific Southwest Airlines and Aerolinas Argentinas.

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In flight on an American Airlines MD-80 over Texas in 2018.

In Asia; Korean Air, China Southern, China Northern, Japan Air System and Far Eastern Air Transport (currently operating eight jets) are amongst operators of the type.

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Flight Deck of an MD-88 of Delta Airlines at Atlanta Hartsfeld-Jackson.

Whilst the MD-80 has been a safe aircraft in its time- the aircraft has had some well reported disasters on its profile, like any other major aircraft type.

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American Airlines operated 326 aircraft from 1983 to 2019, meaning the final flights of the MD-80 on September 4th 2019 will truly mark the end of an era.
  • Northwest Airlines NW255 crashed on take off at Detroit Wayne County Airport on August 16th 1987 due to pilot error leading to the flaps and forward wing slats not being set for take off. 156 fatalities from the aircraft and ground occurred and a lone 6 year old girl survived from the aircraft.
  • SAS Scandinavian Airlines SK751 on December 27th 1991, encountered dual engine failure on take off due to ice from the wings freeing loose and damaging the rear mounted engines, the plane crash landed in a field, however all survived.
  • American Airlines AA1420 overran the runway at Little Rock Airport during a storm on June 1st 1999 due to pilot error, 9 passengers and the planes captain were killed but 134 occupants survived.
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The crash of American Airlines 1420 in June 1999 was the only major disaster for American involving their long time workhorse.
  • Alaska Airlines AS261 crashed on January 31st 2000 just off the coast of California due to poor maintenance work on its elevator system causing the plane to plunge into the Pacific Ocean killing all 88 souls on board.
  • On October 8th 2001, SAS Scandinavian Airlines SK868 was taking off from Milan Linate Airport in thick fog when it collided with a Cessna Citation business jet, all 110 on board perished when the plane hit the Citation and flew down the runway smashing into a building just off the airport. The SAS crew were not in anyway responsible.
  • China Northern Airlines CJ6136 was brought down by a suspected arson by a passenger on May 7th 2002 killing 112 people on board. Zhang Pilin, a passenger on board is believed to have been the culprit.
  • Spanair flight JK5022 crashed on take off at Madrid Barajas Airport on August 20th 2008, following the pilots not correctly setting the flaps and forward slats killing 154 people on board, the crash is eerily similar to that of NWA225, 22 years earlier.
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Delta Airlines has 65 active MD-88 aircraft as of September 2019, these are due to retire in 2021 alongside the MD-90.

Despite selling just shy of 1,200 airframes, as well as the continued use of younger Douglas DC-9 and the introduction of the MD-90 and upcoming introduction of the MD-95, the McDonnell-Douglas company was in decline during the mid-late 1990’s. Boeing was out selling the MD-80 with its Boeing 737-Classic and was introducing the ultra-modern Boeing 737-NG series towards the mid-1990s and the rise of Airbus with their A320 family was a serious problem for the company, and in 1997 the Boeing company began to merge with McDonnell-Douglas.

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Meridiana was one of the final scheduled MD-80 operators in Europe, retiring their fleet in November 2017.

The final MD-80 aircraft was delivered to Trans World Airlines (TWA), an MD-83 registered N984TW, in December 1999, the MD-90 and MD-95 (seeing service as the Boeing 717-200) both continued into the 2000’s, before Boeing ceased production in favour of their own Boeing 737-NG family.

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Danish Air Transport operates two MD-83 on charter flights around Europe.

During the mid-2000’s the MD-80 family began to see wide spread retirement from long term operators. With European airlines finding the Airbus A320 family a more economic and home grown option; Alitalia, Finnair, Iberia and Scandinavian Airlines all retired their fleets between 2008 and 2013. Meridiana was the last major scheduled operator of the type retiring their fleet in late 2017 as they re-branded into Air Italy and introduced the brand new Boeing 737-800 and 737-8MAX.

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A number of stored MD-82 can be found at Olbia Airport in Sardinia which was a main base for Meridiana (now Air Italy).

In America a mix of Boeing 737-NG and Airbus A320-ceo fleets lead to the retirements of the MD-80 from Alaska Airlines, AeroMexico, Allegiant Air, Aerolinas Argentinas.

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With Mad-Dogs being retired across the world- the Boeing 717-200 looks like it will continue to fly for Delta, Volotea and QANTAS Link well into the 2020’s.

American Airlines and Delta Airlines- two of the biggest and most associated operators are even retiring their fleets. American Airlines will operate their final flights on September 4th 2019, ending a 36 year association with the type.

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American Airlines final flight will be AA80 from DFW to ORD, two major hubs for American.

Delta Airlines are gradually retiring their’s until 2021/22 alongside the MD-90 (which they are the sole operator of)- however their Boeing 717-200 fleet (taken from Air Tran in 2014) will probably fly on for more years. Delta is replacing their MD-80 fleet with Boeing 737-900(ER), Airbus A321-ceo(WL) and Airbus A220-100 (Bombardier CS-100). American Airlines retires their fleet in favour of Boeing 737-800/8MAX and Airbus Airbus A320-ceo/A319-NEO aircraft which are both brand new and ex-US Airways aircraft (US being itself a former MD-80 operator).

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Delta Airlines MD-88 departing Atlanta Hartsfeld-Jackson.

However a number of airline continue to use the MD-80 in passenger service, be it regular or charter. Danish Air Transport, ALK Airlines, Anda Air and Balkan Air Charter use the type across Europe. In South America; Andes Lineas Aereas, Venezolana and LASER Airlines are current operators. Due to sanctions on buying new aircraft, various Iranian Airlines are using the type as its become easily accessible including: Kish Airlines, Iran Air Tours, Taban Air, Zagros Airlines and Caspian Airlines.

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McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 and one of the aircraft that is replacing it in airline service, the Boeing 737-800.

Despite the MD-80 becoming harder to fly on or spot in airports around the world, some MD-80 have found themselves in museums for preservation like the older DC-9. Some aircraft that can be found include:

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The comically registered MD-82, I-SMEL, is now preserved in Milan, just off Malpensa Airport.
  • I-SMEL of Meridiana at Volandia Museum in Milan, Italy
  • LV-WFN of Austral Lineas Aereas at National Aeronautics Museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • TC-TUA formerly of Best Air is now a library in Kastamonu, Turkey.
  • N259AA of American Airlines is preserved at the Tulsa Air & Space Museum.
  • N948TW of American Airlines is preserved in its reverse livery Trans World Airlines (TWA) Wings of Pride scheme at Kansas City.
  • N292AA of American Airlines is preserved at the Museo del Nino Childrens in San Juan.
  • I-DAVA is stored at London Gatwick Airport but easily visible to passengers. It was impounded there in 2010.
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The discarded MD-82 at London Gatwick I-DAVA used to operate for Alitalia before ending up with ItAli Airlines before being impounded in 2010.
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