So Long, Mad Dog

MD80

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.

American MD-80 departing DFW

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.

Wing of Northwest DC-9-32 flying DTW to IND

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.

Rear stairs of American MD-80 at DFW Maintenance Hangar

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.

Delta MD-88 at the Gate in SAV

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.

American MD-80 at the Gate in IND

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.

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42 comments on “So Long, Mad Dog

  1. There is also Bulgaria Air Charter who have about 9 MD-82 aircraft who fly people between northern Europe and Bulgarian beaches each summer

  2. I’ve flew Mad Dogs on American and Delta many times over the past 30+ years, and they have always been my favorite mainline narrowbody plane to fly on. Only one middle seat per row, yes, but there was a visceral feeling about flying the planes… Even as a passenger, they felt more rugged, with fewer frills and more noise, and some versions of them had power to burn, making takeoffs a blast.

    Douglas had a reputation for building rugged planes that were far sturdier than they needed to be, and the safety record of the Mad Dog planes compared to their contemporaries reflects that.

    I’m sad to see the MDs go, but I’m sure I’ll get a chance to fly a few segments on 717s in the next few years before Douglas-designed planes truly disappear from the major airlines.

  3. It is worth noting that DL retired the DC9 twice – first as part of its own newly acquired fleet and then after the NW merger. DL also supported the idea of an unducted fan powered aircraft which was to be based on the DC9/MD80 family.
    Douglas played the biggest role in supplying aircraft to Delta in its early years, then the “midlife years” involved Boeing aircraft and now Delta’s orderbook is entirely Airbus although the A220 was ordered from Bombardier as the C Series and will ultimately replace the size class of much of the Douglas fleet but with much more capability and much lower cost.

  4. My first flight in first was on a Delta MD-88. It was so quiet up there that I didn’t realize that we had started taxiing until I happened to look outside.

  5. This makes me sad. Thinking back to the countless trips on Northwest’s DC-9s and MD-80s in and out of DTW back in the day.

  6. I can’t believe I’ve been around long enough to see MD’s retired twice- first at NW, and now at DL. They’re great planes that have served well. Not very fun to work, but I’m still sad to see them go.

  7. I spent countless hours flying on NW DC-9-30’s years ago. Honestly I wasn’t a fan of them, mostly because they were no-frills and NW was neglecting them in their final years. There was no wi-fi back then and NW never had PTV’s on their domestic fleet. Nor did I have a smartphone or tablet back then either. Those were the days when you knew the in flight magazine well. Since then I’ve probably logged equal amount of time on DL MD-80/90’s and 717’s. Again, they were the no-frills aircraft of the fleet and if you got stuck in a high row number in the back it took forever to deplane. At least Delta put wi-fi on them so I could get some work done. Still, my biggest gripe of them was the overhead bins as one side could not accommodate roller bags wheels in. In the wold of bag fees there were countless flights where the final pax to board were stuck without a place for their bag holding up departure as they got put in the belly with the other cargo. Yeah, sure there were less middle seats but I fly enough to avoid those almost always so from my perspective I’d much rather be on a newer aircraft with modern amenities, although deplaning from a rear seat of a 757-300 or 737-900 or A321 is excruciating too. I appreciate the history but much more excited for the next generation single aisle aircraft.

  8. One of the most enjoyable cheap thrills one could have flying as a passenger was to be seated near the front of an MD-80 series aircraft. Not only would takeoff be swift and sure, but it was sooooo quiet with those twin jets at the rear. Will never forget listening intently as the silence was very gradually replaced by the slowly increasing wind noise as the a/c accelerated. I will miss the MD-80, even if it’s old.

  9. Avgeek question: why were some MDs configured 2-3 and others 3-2?

    Also, RIP Midwest Express with their absurd, uneconomical but quite comfy 2-2 configuration. (RIP, not please come back.)

    1. Jon Snow – As far as I know, that was entirely customer preference. I always thought it was strange that Delta had the MD-90s as 2-3 and the MD-88s as 3-2..

    2. Delta wanted to have a large galley in the rear so they put it behind the rear door and the 3-seat side in front of it.

  10. “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.”

    Doesn’t that sound a lot like Boeing with it’s 737 Max minus the forced grounding?

  11. Too many DC9/MD80/90 flights to count. Living in STL I’ve been to three coasts on these birds including the rare Ozark DC-9-34 STL-SAN-STL plus scads of flights on TWA, Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Hawaiian, Air Canada and American. And quite a few DL and AirTran 717a to boot. My all time favorite family of aircraft. Farewell old friend, you will be missed.

  12. As someone who lived on FAA Blvd, just short of the DFW boundary gates, and moments before touchdown on northbound landings, I share none of your nostalgia for the Maddogs.Noisiest, dirtiest, pollutingest aircraft in modern history. I tend towards aircraft nostalgia, having crewed USAF RC135s and watched SR71s come and go at Kadena AFB, but that nostalgia is lost to me on this particular aircraft. Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

  13. I always liked the MD80s family of aircraft. They always seemed long and sleek, very stylish, and fast looking. And who doesn’t like the 2+3 seating option, if the 2-seat side worked out better for you then the 3-seat side.

  14. I used to work for Allegheny Airlines from 1972-1976. When we got the DC-9s they were very well received by the passengers. (I worked in computer technology, not on the aircraft we had.) We had the BAC-111, but I never liked them. The DC-9 was very nice and smooth. I have flown the follow-on planes like the MD-80s and MD-90s. I just like the DC-9s I flew on better, but that is just my personal opinion.

    I believe the DC-9 changed people’s opinion of Allegheny from Agony Airlines to Allegheny.

    I still remember looking at our flight schedule that we had one flight starting in Montreal and ending in Florida with 21 legs!

  15. The worst flight I ever took was in the back end of a TWA DC-9. The noise was excruciating. I liked Northwest’s MD-80s, which I flew often between Phoenix and the Twin Cities – as long as I wasn’t in the back. Overall, they were more comfortable than Boeing aircraft. I do have to wonder, given 20/20 hindsight, if Boeing wasn’t a bit shortsighted when it axed the DC-9/MD-80 platform. The Boeing 737-7s and Airbus A318/319s aren’t selling well, and improved versions of the DC-9/MD-80/B717 design might have been a viable option to fill that market niche as the 737 series grew in size. We’ll never know.

  16. Only did a few Mad Dog flights on American, when I couldn’t get a cheap enough UA flight home from SFO to LHR, and had to connect in LAX. But my earliest memories of this great plane were way back, when I was a little kid in the South West of England, we used to get buzzed by Paramount Airways MD-83s (they had a couple of them based at BRS for part of the year, and were easily the biggest things to fly in and out of Lulsgate on a regular basis). As has often been said on here, the diversity in aircraft design is much missed these days.

  17. One quick question. Delta is retiring its MDs, but not the 717, right? And Hawaiian also flies 717s. The DC9 lives on as long as these are in the air.

  18. I thought you might enjoy the story. You retired before the McDonnell-Douglas name in commercial aviation but not by much.

  19. I think my first Mad Dog flight was on Hughes Air Worst aka the flying banana.

    Least favorite flight being in the second to last row across from the lav. Deafening noise and ewwww that smell.

    Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

  20. The picture of the rear staircase reminded me that I boarded the Mad Dog twice from the rear – once on Iberia which was planned, and another time where we surprised a DL flight attendant who had to lower the stairs for me.

    1. Angry Bob – As far as I know, it only operated Mad Dogs. I know it had a mix of pretty much every kind of MD-80/90, including the short-body MD-87.
      I only flew the airline once, and it was on an MD-83 on March 17, 1997 from San Jose to LA.

  21. The DC-9 and my professional career launched about the same time. I can say I never once asked anyone to make sure my trip was on a DC-9.

    Pretty much my least favorite commercial airliner of all time. RIP, you…!

    But, doesn’t it seem that when you respond to an airline’s survey naming your most favorite airliner, you know that management will find this as an excuse to send that airplane to Mojave and replace it with something new, improved, something the public hates! It’s the industry way!

  22. Was this article about the Mad Dog, Cranky’s favorite airline in this and the next twelve galaxies (where he has connections) American, or…what? I’m a bit confused.

    1. I noticed that too. I’m guessing Cranky didn’t have many Delta MD-88 photos from his collection. I know it seemed to me that we didn’t get many MD-88s on the west coast, but we did get the MD-90 as they seemed to be mostly based in SLC for many years when Delta just operated the initial 14 aircraft.

      1. David – Indeed, I had four legs on the MD-90 in and out of SLC, but they were all before smartphones, and I just don’t have any photos of those flights.

  23. Looking back over my trip email confirmations (yes, I’m wet behind the ears enough that I’m 99% sure every flight I’ve taken has an email confirmation), I’ve flown on more MDs than I thought. Guessing 40% of my flights on DL have been on some DC-9 variant, provided you throw in the four legs I’ve flown on the 717. Naturally, all but one of the M88/M90 legs have touched ATL, with DEN-MSP being the lone exception.

    My last M88 leg would’ve been in May 2015, but that flight turned into a twelve-hour MX delay and I rebooked on a 717 instead later that day. Sitting right next to the engine was loud, but could’ve been worse.

    Hopefully I’ll catch the 717 a few times more before it heads to the desert.

  24. I have to say – unless I missed it in Cranky’s original post or in the comments – that I find it intersting no one mentioned my favorite aspect about the MD-90 and MD-80 (and DC-9, and 717…) airliners: the windows, The are gloriously large. Bigger than the Boeing narrowbodies, I believe, and DEFINITELY bigger than the European portholes on the various Airbi.

    A great article Carnky – a nice historical summary – much appreciated.

  25. Very complete and accurately written, enjoyed reading. If I had any input, would have worded ‘and pilots actually had to fly them. Ask an MD-80 pilot’ a little differently. The MD-80 series was equipped with the first digital Flight Guidance System, allowing Cat IIIa autoland and when equipped with a HUD, lower the autoland weather minimums. The 737’s didn’t have those features until much later. The A320 did. Rolf Sellge

  26. When I was a flight attendant at Delta for a short 2 years, the MD88/90s were my least favorite to work. The tailcone jumpseat was loud and during the summer the AC leaked on you during takeoff. Additionally they all had one galley at the front. 3 FAs on the 88 and 4 FAs on the 90 with one galley was not fun lol.

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