On Tuesday, the last of Delta’s McDonnell Douglas-branded aircraft gathered at the grandiosely-named Arkansas International Airport in Blytheville, not far from the Missouri and Tennessee borders. Despite its name, this former military base doesn’t see much international traffic… or any traffic for that matter. On occasion, there are bursts of activity, like this week when those Delta MD-88/MD-90 aircraft streamed in for retirement, one after the other. Most if not all of these aircraft will never fly again, instead being parted out by the experts at ART.
Delta was the last of the major airlines to operate these fleets, and that means this is a milestone that marks the end of the McDonnell Douglas name in commercial service except in the far corners of the aviation world. This aircraft, which began life more than 50 years ago as the DC-9, deserves a proper send-off after a remarkable run. Thanks to COVID-19, Delta wasn’t able to swing the kind of event that American put forth last year. Consider today a little appreciation for the airplane’s service.
The MD-80 Origin Story
Douglas Aircraft Company first put the DC-9 into service with Delta at the end of 1965, two years before merging with McDonnell to form McDonnell Douglas and more than two years before the first Boeing 737 was delivered. The original version, the DC-9-10, was a small airplane even by 737-100 standards. It could seat only 90 passengers in a single-class configuration. The DC-9 was meant to replace props — as well as provide competition to early generation jets like the Caravelle and BAC-111 — on short- to medium-haul flights, and it was a success.
The airplane was stretched thrice into the DC-9-30 — which was more competitive with the 737-100 having 115 seats in a single class –, the poor-selling DC-9-40 with 125 seats, and the bigger DC-9-50 with 135 seats. Including military and cargo versions, nearly 1,000 of these aircraft were built.
The DC-9 was appreciated for its 2-3 configuration which put only 20 percent of passengers in a middle seat instead of 33 percent on a 737. It was a workhorse, but it was still relatively small. That was something that was fixable.
The Super Stretch
By the late 1970s, McDonnell Douglas saw the opportunity to stretch the DC-9 even further. The airplane originally known as the DC-9-80 was first delivered in 1980 with 5 different variants.
This was no simple stretch. Creating the MD-80 required a redesigned wing, greater fuel capacity, and higher bypass version of the original JT8D engines. These changes were significant, but they weren’t different enough to require a new type certificate from the government. This was an important advantage.
The MD-81/82/83 are all pretty much the same with just differences in range. The higher the number, the higher the range. The poor-selling MD-87 was a short-bodied version similar in size to the DC-9-50. The MD-88 came later, and was basically the same as the earlier versions except it had a modern electronic cockpit. The cockpit may have looked modern, but underneath, this was still an old-school beast. There was no fly-by-wire. These airplanes were controlled mechanically and hydraulically, and pilots actually had to fly them. Ask an MD-80 pilot about the airplane, and you’ll usually hear a love story. (Ask a ramper who had to load the airplane, and you’ll hear the complete opposite.)
A stretch that nearly doubles the size of the original design can be a mistake, but in this case, the MD-80 shined. American chose the airplane as its vehicle for expansion throughout the 1990s, and it performed admirably. Delta also had a large fleet that helped it to grow.
Douglas was always known for building airplanes that could fly forever, and the DC-9/MD-80 was no exception. Just compare it to the 737. The DC-9 launched first, and the MD-80 flew before the 737 Classic (-300/400/500 series). This is the last airplane to use the JT8D engine, a generation behind the 737 Classic’s CFM engines, yet the MD-80 flew with major airlines for longer. Were it not for COVID-19, it would still have a couple more years left on the main stage despite its fuel inefficiency compared to newer models.
The MD-90: A Failure Regardless of Performance
After the MD-80, McDonnell Douglas’s fortunes faded. Instead of putting real money into developing a new generation of aircraft, McDonnell Douglas instead opted to put limited funds into improving existing airplanes. For the MD-80, that meant creating the MD-90. This was an airplane that was a very solid performer. McDonnell Douglas replaced the JT8Ds with the same IAE V2500 engines that operate on much of the A320ceo fleet. It was incredibly quiet, but it didn’t sell well. Just over 100 were built, and Delta was the last operator.
Why did it fail? A hungry Airbus rose quickly with the first delivery of its A320 in 1988. That competed directly with the 737 and MD-90, and Airbus was hungry to win deals. Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas’s financial woes continued, and it sold to Boeing in 1997, just two years after the MD-90 was first delivered. Seeing the MD-90 and 737 in direct competition, Boeing quickly killed the MD-90 program.
Despite that, the airplane found a second life in the arms of Delta. Delta was looking for additional, efficient capacity and the orphaned MD-90 was being abandoned by other airlines. Between 2009 and 2013, Delta picked up 49 aircraft for cheap. This complemented the airlines original 16-airframe fleet and served the airline well as cheap, efficient capacity.
Where the MDs Still Fly
Once the last MD-88/90 departed Delta’s fleet, that left a little more than 150 flying around the world, all MD-80s. This airplane is in the late stages of life. The biggest operators of the MD-80 are in places where new aircraft can’t easily be acquired. That means they’re still plentiful in Iran, Venezuela, and Afghanistan. There are also some operators in Africa, former Soviet Republics, and Indonesia.
Outside of cargo operations which still soldier on, there are a few still flying outside of those previously-mentioned spots. Andes Líneas Aéreas has a few in Argentina, if it still exists as an airline. Bulgarian charter ALK airlines appears poised to continue operating the aircraft as does Danish Air Transport on charters, both in Europe. In the US, there is still one passenger carrier. World Atlantic does charters primarily to Latin America.
Not Quite Dead Yet
Though the McDonnell Douglas name is gone from the major airlines, the legacy lives on with the final version of the airplane, even though Boeing tried to hide its heritage. The MD-95 name was changed to 717 once Boeing took over and realized it served a smaller market that the 737 didn’t adequately service.
This airplane still flies in large numbers with four airlines. Delta has 88, though it expects to halve its numbers in the near future, and Hawaiian has 20 flying between the islands. In Australia, there are 20 717s that fly under the Qantas brand, and in Europe, Volotea still has 14.
Once the 717 dies, that will truly be the end of Douglas-designed airplanes in commercial service.