Don’t Blame the MD-80 For This Mess

American, MD80, Safety/Security

There’s no question that American has done an absolutely terrible job of managing the latest round of MD-80 maintenance issues from a PR perspective. It’s been so bad, that I’ve seen articles start to question the MD-80 as an airplane, even though there’s no reason for them to do so. The MD-80 is a safe plane, and it’s unfortunate that American has let this thing get away from them. So, as Milli Vanilli might say . . . blame it on AA, yeah, yeah. (No? Too ridiculous?)

It all comes back to American’s unwillingness to push out a full explanation of what was happening. Finally, yesterday, they did, though curiously it came from their EVP of Marketing and not from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Airline Biz blog has the info here.

Basically, a couple years ago, there were concerns that wiring could arc and start fires or cause a variety of other problems. The FAA put out an Airworthiness Directive (AD) and made the airlines comply within 18 months. Now, they clearly didn’t think this was a problem of imminent doom, or they wouldn’t have allowed the airlines to make the fixes over 18 months.

By now, the fixes had been finished, but not 100% to spec. Now the FAA, fresh off being burned by the Southwest fiasco, is getting anal. They’re enforcing every little detail, so when they found that the spacing between ties holding the wire bundles together weren’t exactly one inch apart, they called foul.

So, the airlines flying the MD-80 are making these tiny changes to meet the requirements, even if it isn’t really a safety issue. How American wasn’t able to fix this last week when the planes were first grounded, I’ll never know. But it’s probably the FAA’s attempt to show the public that they’re doing something that’s making all this happen. It could have happened to any aircraft, but this is like the one kid in class who gets pulled to the front of the room so the teacher can make an example out of him.

Since it took American awhile to finally discuss the full details, it gave the media plenty of time to cook up stupid, stupid stories. The worst piece of irresponsible journalism comes from the AP. They put out a story entitled “Plane type Under Review Has Had Mishaps.” Uh oh. This awful piece of work goes on to link completely unrelated incidents, most of which were not even due to problems with the aircraft. And now CNN is jumping into the ring by talking about some landing gear problems that American MD-80s have had on extremely rare occasions over the last few months. The scaremongers are revving up. Let’s put a stop to that.

The MD-80 is a safe plane. Douglas built planes like tanks, and they tend to last forever. It’s no surprise that Northwest continues to operate 40 year old DC-9s. They may not be fuel efficient compared to newer planes, but they’re definitely solid aircraft.

I mean, take a look at this plane. Does it look unsafe?
08_04_09 md80
Ok, so maybe it looks like a giant flying wiener, but it’s not unsafe. I know a lot of Americans living out here on the West Coast often associate the MD-80 with the Alaska Airlines crash off the coast of Southern California. It’s not often that we see accidents of that magnitude in our own backyard, so it tends to leave a mark. But once again, that wasn’t the fault of the plane. That was improper maintenance by Alaska Airlines.

If you’d like to review all the previous accidents the MD-80 has had, the Aviation Safety Network can help. You’ll see that most if not all the accidents in there were not due to problems specific to the MD-80.

Don’t believe me that the plane is safe? I actually booked a flight on one yesterday. My fiancee and I will be flying on a Midwest MD-80 in August, and I didn’t think twice about it from a safety standpoint. American, Delta, Allegiant, Midwest, and Alaska all still fly the MD-80 in the US thousands of times per day without incident. There’s no reason you should avoid them.

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42 comments on “Don’t Blame the MD-80 For This Mess

  1. Old, Old, Old…that is the theme when flying U.S. based airlines. Northwest with it’s ancient Dc9’s, American and Delta with their MD80’s. My kids call them screamers since they are so loud they wake the dead. Every time I fly these jets they are not comfortable and they lack modern conveniences present on similar sized Airbus aircraft like the A318/319, etc.

    The U.S. flying public should get used to the theme of old aircraft being the source of delays and cancellations. The U.S. airlines have gotten themselves so far behind that to catch up will take many years since it takes time to receive orders from the manufacturers.

    I believe overseas service will also continue to suffer as airlines like Lufthansa, Singapore and Virgin not to mention others like BA all acquire and operate modern fleets with coveted conveniences and services aboard. Try finding video on demand on that old 767 flying to Europe or worse yet on a 757 single aisle aircraft overseas. Flying single aisle aircraft overseas is unheard of with airlines like those above. Wake up U.S. airlines and get your orders in for modern jets like the A330/340/350/380 before it is too late!

  2. What do you think the odds are of Midwest actually flying you on the flight you booked this summer? If we stay at $110/bbl I would think they will start shrinking.

  3. Mark Rascio – Just because an aircraft is old doesn’t mean it’s more prone to cancellations. It’s all about the maintenance organization behind those airplanes. They shouldn’t be any less reliable than newer aircraft if they’re maintained correctly.

    About overwater flying . . . it’s funny that you mention that none of those airlines fly narrowbodies overseas, but in fact they do. BA is starting up a new subsidiary this summer to solely fly 757s across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Lufthansa does offer some all business class narrowbody flights to the US.

    But your point is taken. You can bet those 757s will be much nicer on the inside than the ones of their US counterparts. It’s all about the airline’s decision on how to outfit the plane and not the plane itself.

    SeaFlyer – A very good question. It appears that Midwest is in better shape than some of the other smaller guys, but there are rumors out that they’ll be cutting back flights this week. Ugh. I thought it was worth a shot. I’ve never flown them before.

  4. Old does not equal unsafe. Remember last week UAL halted traffic on the (relatively) new 777s for maintenance reasons too.

    For short hops, like MPS or DTW over to my home of Grand Rapids I really don’t care how old or new, or even what the a/c is. (like NW’s ancient DC9s)

    Once you’re settled in a seat is a seat, and on quick flights you don’t need room to stretch, extra bathrooms, and fancy IFE. In fact I prefer smaller planes for short flights as its less time boarding and deplaning.

  5. Mark, you think DC9’s are loud?

    Where were you before Stage 3?

    Nothing like the sound of an old school 707 on takeoff.

  6. The Mad Dogs are great aircraft that keep going. The fact that American can’t get their maintenance together is unfortunetly destroying the reputation of a very good and safe aircraft. When it comes to narrow body coach flying I prefer the MD-80 (and DC-9) series. Grab a seat on the 2-seat side and it’s almost like an upgrade, especially if you are traveling with one other person.

    Indeed Alaska Air is phasing out their MD-80s (which are 8% of their total fleet). They will be completely replaced by the end of 2008 at the latest, but I believe they are trying to accelerate that due to fuel prices. Then the only gas guzzlers Alaska will have are the 737-400 freighters and a few left over 737-500s in passenger operations. I have to say that I am very impressed with Alaska’s drive to upgrade their fleet while the other airlines were busy doing goodness knows what with their money.

  7. The only thing I don’t like about MD-80s is when you’re unlucky enough to have to sit way in the back near those crazy-loud engines.

  8. Agree about your points re. maintenance but that was not my point. Safety is one issue and passenger comfort, convenience, noise, pollution, efficiency, etc. are all different issues. I agree with those who say the MD80, DC 9 and others are venerable aircraft but unless it is a short flight, for me, newer is better.

    By the way, I do remember the old 707’s and how loud they were. The louder crafts do make for more interesting take off watching.

    Jason H.: I’m not sure what many U.S. carriers were thinking when many halted their acquistion of new aircraft programs or significantly slowed their programs. I’d much rather get on a new A340-600 on Virgin vs. an old 767 any day.

    I hear U.S. Airways has an aggressive program to upgrade it’s fleet including the new A350 within the next 3-4 years.

  9. Mark – Fair point. My original message was about safety, so I think I was reading your post with that lens. Passenger comfort is a different animal, indeed.

    Still, I can argue that it’s a more comfortable plane if you’re traveling with a companion. As Jason H says, grab a seat on the 2 side and you don’t have to deal with that third person. And if you’re up front, it’s pretty quiet. Ever been on an MD-90? Now that’s a nice and quiet plane (and it has inflight entertainment on Delta).

    But it goes both ways. As Rob says, there’s nothing worse than sitting in the last row next to the engine. I can remember one terrible flight where I was in the middle seat in the last row from Houston to Phoenix on Continental. We took off in thunderstorms and the constant altitude gains and losses meant changing noises from the engines every minute. NOT a pleasant flight.

  10. CF – while we’re on the topic of MD-80s and AA – do you have any idea when they are going to update the interior of them? They’re so dingy, dumpy, and dirty. I recently flew from LA to RDU via Dallas in two different MD-80’s and the stains seemed to have stains….even in our first class seats!

  11. It is a simple equation: Safe equipment = solid engineering + proper maintenance. Yes, I want to be comfy, especially on long segments, but I feel as safe in my 1975 Cessna 172 as I do on any commercial aircraft, regardless of its age, because I manage the maintenance of my a/c and I don’t wait for the FAA to tell me what to do and when to do it.

  12. Sheila: You are right but it’s not just the interior but often the exterior also. It becomes very obvious at a large international airport when one looks over the shining new aircraft operated by many other carriers as compared to the dirty, old, tired looking aircraft operated by the U.S. based companies.

    Wow…cross country on MD-80’s, what a trip. I live in CLT and have had to travel to SFO routinely. While US Airways should have at least one wide body a day doing it’s most busy routes to the west, at least the A321’s are newer and have a decent entertainment system for a moderately long haul such as that.

    If you have to connect, Delta I think has wide body service from ATL to LA…not bad for a domestic route.

  13. Mark – yes, it was a long trip, indeed! Also consider the fact that the travel originated in Kona, Hawaii on an old school AA 757 without leg rests. I travel long haul flights pretty frequently and for the first time I got cankles, e.g. extremely swollen lower legs and feet. It was definitely not fun!

    I very much agree with you about US airlines being embarrassing next to foreign carriers. In the last year, I’ve flown Quantas and Air Tahati Nui in economy and business class. They were far superior to any US flight I’ve had in a long time, even in economy. It’s very sad.

  14. Some of the worst flights I’ve ever been on (or supposed to have been on) were American Airlines flights.

    For those who can afford it, private jet travel is fantastic. No security lines, no waiting:

  15. Feldspar, No I don’t work for Airbus….my guess is that like Sheila I end up flying on these old school Boeing aircraft and then compare that to my experience on a newer Airbus. South African runs 737-800’s and this was quite a nice aircraft although, while not something most would notice, even the newer 737’s appear to sit lower to the ground than the narrow body Airbus aircraft.

    Does anyone have any experience flying on a Boeing Aircraft with video on demand in coach…curious since I’ve not run into this.

    A cool feature it seemed like the whole plane enjoyed on a South African A340-600 was the nose, tail and under fuselage cameras. When we were close to landing nearly everyone’s screen was on the tail or nose camera.

  16. Mark – I have flown on Boeing products with AVOD in coach. If you catch a former Delta Song 757 they have AVOD. I know tail 696DL is an AVOD 757-200 that often flies the DEN-ATL route.

    As to the 737’s ground clearance, it appears that is a holdover from the original design of the plane and its “man eater” engines. However, if you ever see a 737-200 and a 737-900 side by side, you’ll see that the newer plane actually does sit higher due to the larger engines and wings that allow it to fly ETOPS routes like SEA-HNL.

    It’s funny that people comment on flying non-US carriers to experience newer planes. Look at the fleet makeup of KLM and you will still see some old tri-jet widebodies that are no longer flown in the US. It’s just a matter of capital to maintain the appearance of the planes, not a matter of age.

  17. Mark-

    Both QF and SQ have VOD in coach on their 747s. I think NZ might as well.

    I flew on an A346 with SA once last year and don’t recall the external cameras being piped in. :(

  18. CF- I’ve flown Midwest before… as in back in the days when they were all Signature Service, and meals were complimentary. Nice! I’ve even flown on one of their old DC-9-10s (N500ME: 08/30/01, PHL->MKE; yup, with the incandescent light bulbs inside)…

    Their flight times/frequency into Phoenix largely sucks, which is why I don’t fly them much anymore…

  19. Delta is also installing TV on some of their 737-800s, and that’s one of the few 737 operators I’ve seen with it installed. Remember, Continental also announced they’ll be installing Live TV on much of their fleet.

    I had the chance to fly the SA A340-600 from CPT to JNB back in 2003 and I loved the camera. So cool.

  20. CF: Can you compare the type and seriousness of the American vs Southwest problems (since those are the two airlines that seem to be the most in the thick of the FAA debacle)? Are all of these missed directives going to end up with more fines from the FAA, or will Southwest’s be reduced? It seems like the FAA has really screwed themselves over with the airlines, congress & the traveling public. (BTW: I know the airlines screwed up too, but there seems to be a recurring theme in government oversight agencies in the past few years)

  21. Well, it’s tough to compare these two without knowing everything that went on behind the scenes. With Southwest, it seems like they self-disclosed but when the FAA found that it had allowed them to fly against the rules, it fined them. I would think they could get that to come down.

    AA, on the other hand, ended up in trouble because FAA spot checks (after the Southwest debacle) revealed that there were some issues. I suppose they could end up being fined for this, no?

  22. Jason H. KLM does run 14 MD-11’s still in their fleet but they have underwent a huge modernization also replacing older 747’s and 767’s with 777’sand A330-200’s. Northwest, just a few months back, retired their DC-10’s…while still a tri-jet the MD-11 is a more modern jet than the DC-10 which until recently was flown by a US carrier.

    Anyway, my observations are not in a vacuum…I’ve been reading articles where the lack of modernization programs within US Airlines is now being noticed by the media and many travelers. My hope is the airlines wake up and can accelerate a program to modernize. US Airways, with some success under it’s belt, has not began such a program. Other airlines need to follow.

  23. On another topic, anyone have the latest on the debate between using small RJ’s vs. larger aircraft. Read something on the road recently that the increased use of RJ’s is causing crowding and some airlines are re-thinking the expansion of the use of these jets just to offer more frequent service.

  24. I think the equation used to be that RJs were cheaper to run since the Labor was cheaper on an RJ, and Labor was the mostly costly part of running a plane. Now that fuel is the mostly costly part, I’d expet that we’d see fewer RJs, certainly fewer small RJs (<50 pax), and probably almost no new 50 seaters. As such, I’d guess that the “RJ growth” will be in planes sized like the CRJ700, CRJ900, E170, E190 and Q400….

  25. Mark: Unfortunetly for the US airlines, even if they sped up their fleet renewal programs, they still would have to fly their older aircraft for several more years. Both Boeing and Airbus are sold out well into the next decade and unless the US carriers swap build slots with foreign carriers, they aren’t going to get their aircraft for awhile.

  26. Jason, You are right..they missed the boat some time ago. Now with fuel at a premium, they will be at a disadvantage to an airline that did modernize. It will be a good position for the leasing companies…they’ll get to name their price.

  27. BTW, on the way to work this morning, saw a beautiful ATI DC8-62 coming in for landing. But with the big quiet engines.

    Sure was a pretty old school sight.

  28. I think that a wire bindel tie that is off just a little bit is no big deal. what is important is that the bundel is not in a position to rub against any metal fuselage shapes.That could wear through the insulation and cause electrical problems.If this is not the case, then the FAA has just got a mission that is not about safety but something else.

  29. Mark Rascio, if you fly air france LAX to LHR, they have 777s whith the best service ever in economy, and they do have back tvs.

  30. I hate the MD-80s and its antecedant variants; they are so loud that a normal conversation as they take off from San Diego’s airpot just destroys an conversation on the ground; everytime they take off you can hear them obliterate communication; other aircraft don’t do that at all. It’s American Airlines that is doing this. No doubt their afternoon flights to Dallas. I used to have to commute there on these awful noisey planes and they should be retired because they have to throttle up HUGE just to get off the ground.

  31. Ok wow! This was suppose to be about safety of md 80 but those has gone as far as comparing md 80 to other planes as a340, planes with flight entertainment systems or on demand systems or 767 to a340. These are irrelevant to md safety. If your going go compare planes, compare planes to there respective markets instead of ocean crossing three class new start of the art a340. The md 80 aside from maintenance, pilot error, weather, traffic control, the md 80 safety is on pare with other manufacture. Reports of per incidents leading to crash and death is among the lowest in the industry.
    i have flown the md with Alaska airlines and never found it to be as unacceptable as some has said it to be further more I have flown on 737 400 that were louder(also ak air).
    Infighting entertainment systems come on, on demand, really? This is domestic airplane with end of life around the corner.
    Modernizing of fleet in the US where competition is fierce, airlines with bankruptcies after nine eleven, low cost carriers taking over markets and setting the standard is not as easy as it used to be after deregulation.
    As far as airbus, fine, far out, fly your on demand planes. There safe, there economical but i still prefer American. The funny thing is now some one might say i am a narrow minded republican. Lol no just believe in Boeing and md and will say the airbus is great company keeping Boeing on there toes and that is always a good thing cause where would we be with out health competitionas it brings out the best in both.
    As far as comparing new airbus to aging 757 and 767 ok why not compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges such as a300 developed about the same time frame.
    i have no problem with comparisons or healthy debates as long as thing are relevant and informed.

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