Alaska Retires the MD-80

Another week, another airline retires the good ole’ MD-80. This past Sunday, Alaska flew its last MD-80 operation, and the airline is now an all-737 fleet. Alaska had a particularly interesting relationship with the MD-80 that brings out all different kinds of emotion in people.

The MD-80 really gave Alaska some long legs to expand their route map. They pushed into Mexico, This seat sucks.Russia (yep, they used to fly over the Bering Strait), and eastern cities like Toronto with that airplane. This truly was a workhorse of a plane for the airline, and it served them well, for the most part.

Of course, we can’t forget about the horrible memories that Alaska and the MD-80 spawn in people. Those who live up and down the west coast have never forgotten Alaska 261, the aircraft that spiraled into the ocean off the coast of Point Mugu. That accident brought the word “jackscrew” into our lexicon, and put a lot of fear in many people when they had to fly the MD-80. Of course, we later learned the crash was caused by poor maintenance and not the airplane itself, but that initial impressions still stayed with many fliers.

Personally, I had only one experience flying the Alaska MD-80. In July 2004, I was scheduled to fly a 737 from Seattle to Anchorage. My family and I arrived at the airport early and we stood by for an earlier flight. That flight was on an MD-80, and I will always associate it with the beautiful twilight views we encountered descending upon Anchorage after midnight. Then again, we didn’t have to sit in the dreaded seat next to the engine (above left, thanks to P.C. Loadletter on Flickr) that so many people rightfully despise.

The airplane may have been officially retired by Alaska yesterday, but the most significant goodbye in my eyes happened Monday, August 18. That day, Alaska flew its final MD-80 into Long Beach, the proud former home of Douglas Aircraft Co and the location where those MD-80s were born.

The saddest part of all of this is that each time an MD-80 retires, we get closer and closer to the end of seeing Douglas-born planes in regularly scheduled service. That will be a very sad day when they’re all gone.

18 Responses to Alaska Retires the MD-80

  1. Nick B says:

    Unlike a great many of my co workers, I will miss the MD-80s, with the 2 by 3 seating and a quiet ride (if you can stay in front of the wings). I shocked my coworkers and even the cabin crew about a month ago when I became excited to work the last Alaska MD-80 flight from Phoenix. Of course, it only happened on an equipment substitution, but never the less I was happy to work an MD-80 one last time, even if it was N972AS that seems to stalk me where ever I go. For some reason, despite the fact that Alaska never installed larger overhead bins like American and Delta, I never had an MD-80 run out of overhead bin space requiring me to gate check large numbers of bags. And unlike some other gate agents at Alaska, I never had any lengthy delays with the MD-80s and never avoided working flights operated by them.

    I will miss the MD-80s, they were an always welcome interuption to the now endless stream of 737s.

  2. Jason H says:

    It is nice for a change to see a forward thinking airline. We bemoan the legacy carriers for their faults, but rarely do we praise them for their positives. While I certainly understand Nick’s sentiment (and I’m sure Horizon employees will say the same thing when the last Q-200 and CRJ700 is retired), this is one of the most financially savvy moves by any US carrier. When you consider that even with the MD-80 in the fleet the average age of Alaska aircraft was only a little over 8 years (compared to over 9 years for SWA), this is a huge step to fleet modernization.

    Just looking at the fuel savings is amazing. From their press release “The 737-800 burns 850 gallons of fuel per hour, versus 1,100 gallons per hour by the MD-80.” Savings of 250 gallons per hour! Just.. wow!

  3. jkarp2112 says:

    Having flown SJC-SEA a few ga-zillion times on Alaska’s MD-80 I argue that sitting up front on those planes is as quiet as you could get in an airplane (right there with the upper deck on 744).

    And in the back the 2-seat side was always a favorite when traveling with the woman.

    Overall it will just be sad/strange not to see the Alaksa MD’s flying all around the Bay Area.

  4. Erik says:

    I’m sorry to see the phasing out of the DC-9 and MD-80 series. With the 5-across seating, there’s only a 20% chance of getting a middle seat, leading to a more open-feeling interior than the 737. The tail-mounted engines mean a quiet ride, unless you end up in the last couple rows (or in the very last row that has an engine mount instead of a window).

  5. A says:

    I admit that I’ve never been a fan of the MD80, but it is sad to see the last of the Douglas aircraft leave the American skies. The duopoly of Boeing and Airbus just doesn’t provide enough variety for someone who loves to look at the sky as a jet passes and rattle off the model number. Part of me is wishing that Lockheed would get back in the business as their L1011 has been gone from the skies some time now. I agree that fleets need to modernize for many reasons. I just wish that this business wasn’t so tough that only two global manufacturers could compete. Maybe someday the Brazilians and Canadians will start making large aircraft to fill this void I feel, but Douglas has a nostalgia that’s hard to fill.

  6. Wes says:

    I love the MD-80. It provides a smoother ride than the 737 due to the heavy wing loading of Douglas airplanes (ever seen the wings move on a Douglas bird? nope). The 737 seems to bounce around a lot more in turbulence, and the strength of the Md80 engineering is evident to those who work on them. A common story is that AA disassembled a MD-80 to look at a re-enginge program and realized there was almost no wear on the frame. Unfortunately, there was little support from OEM (Boeing) to re-engine their birds so they will one day go to the desert like Alaskas, but not before transporting hundreds of millions of passengers safely and very quietly.

  7. Anon Coward says:

    I’m a proud fan of the MD as well. So sad to see AA and AS be retiring these wonderful planes. The A-B side of the MD-80 stands today among the last vestiges of decency left in flying coach.

  8. Darkwater says:

    CF, how long did the MD80s fly to the Russian Far East? I remember when Alaska started their Magadan-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok service with 727-200s with extra fuel tanks, but don’t remember them switching over to MD80s before dropping the service.

  9. Darkwater says:

    Anon Coward, don’t forget that some, but not all, of DL’s MD80s had 3-2 seating instead of 2-3. Adding to the fun was DL’s insistence of labeling all MD80 rows as A-E with no “missing” seat: without knowing what type of MD80 you were flying on, you didn’t know whether your B or D seat was an aisle or a middle.

  10. David SF east bay says:

    I always thought the MD80 type planes were always sleek looking with their engines in the rear and a narrower body due only 5 seats. For some reason that always made them “look” faster then 737′s.

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  12. Anon Coward says:

    Thanks Darkwater. The MD’s are great — small enough that boarding isn’t a fiasco and frequencies can be high, large enough to hit some farther-flung destinations. And the pair-seating on one side means you and your significant other don’t have to bump elbows with your “next closest friend”. Quiet up front. What more can you ask? Just that AA would reverse course and quit parking em.

  13. I’m going to miss these birds. While I didn’t fly MD-80s a lot, they remind me of flying the DC-9 into and out of BGM.

    I got to fly two last year around thanksgiving, and I was a nice experience.

    Its sad we couldn’t get these birds reenginged.

  14. CF says:

    Darkwater – I’m not sure of the dates, but I’ve got some feelers out to get more info. I’ll let you know if I get an answer.

  15. Rob Warde says:

    I flew MD-80′s out of ORD many times and loved the planes. Much Nicer than the 737′s, especially when travelling with a partner – the 2 * 3 seating was perfect. I’ll be sorry to see them go.

  16. Evan says:

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the MD80 isn’t on its last leg just yet. According to AA top brass, American has 80s on lease until 2024. Fly any short/medium range AA route and you’ll most likely see an 80. Their conversion to 737s is at a snail’s pace. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I’ve always liked the long and slender body of an 80 but AA really needs to do a thorough interior overhall of their entire MD80 fleet. Not just another lipstick job.

  17. spritom says:

    I enjoyed the MD’s and the little kidlets slept well when we were aft of row 29 to the drumbeat of those JT8-D’s. When traveling without the kids, those front rows were very quiet.

    As a ticket agent, I found the MD’s easier to work with on finding desired seating for everybody as well as boarding. Many times while helping clean the cabin or assisting special situation passengers, I would use the aft stairs to deplane instead of trying to swim upstream against 140 passengers.

    Directing cargo/luggage loading of the MD was an issue as I sometimes ran out of space before running out of weight capacity. This was particularly true of flights to Guadalajara which had less tourists and more commuters.

    Service to the Soviet (then later it became “Russian”) Far East did happen early on with the ’27′s, but regular service in the 90′s was carried out by the MD’s with the extra fuel tanks that took up most of Cargo Pit 3 and compounded the cargo volume issue. If I recall, the #’s were 939, 944, 945, and a couple of others. It was one of these MD’s with the famous (or notorious) pilots used cases of vodka to deice the planes when the regular deicing fluid wasn’t available. I believe #963 also had the long range tanks and tragically entered the headlines as Flight 261.

    The MD was powerful too and if pushed hard, it could climb faster than the cabin could pressurize causing the masks to drop. The pilots were well aware of this and were much lighter on the controls to give a good ride for the passengers.

    The newer ’37′s really are more efficient with those nifty CFM’s which are quiet, powerful, and very efficient. Plus the ’37 frame is more efficient. A ’37-400 is about 77k lbs zero-fuel-weight while an MD tips the scales somewhere in the mid-90′s. (Compared to a ’27 that was over 100k).

    I see why the newer jets are used, but I’ll miss the MD’s in that navy/teal color scheme.

  18. spritom says:

    @ Evan:

    Living near an approach path, I still see MD’s in other colors. They’re easily recognized by the tell-tale wing-tip lights as well as the deeper voice of the engines. It’s quite the workhorse.

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