The Quest for One Last Flight: An Ode to the MD-80

An American Airlines MD-80 in the maintenance hangar. (Photo: Ryan Patterson/@diecastryan)

Once a mainstay at the country’s major airports, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 is one of the most recognizable aircraft in the world. Flying for the likes of Trans World Airlines, Delta Air Lines and, most notably, American Airlines, the aircraft is best described as a workhorse, performing the short-medium haul routes necessary to maintain the hub-and-spoke system employed by so many of the world’s airlines today.

An American MD-80 after being pushed back at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Despite its legendary status among pilots and passengers alike, the aircraft is slowly fading from the skies, replaced by newer aircraft with the latest technology. No aircraft, it seems, is immune to the slow, steady march of time, as we’ve seen the Boeing 747 which is seeing a similar fate to the Mad Dog, as the MD-80 is so affectionately known.

After the last United 747 flight, the aircraft wore a lei created by local airline staff. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Alex Navitsky)

In the United States, three airlines are the last holdouts operating the aircraft: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Allegiant Air, and flying on one of them isn’t as easy as it used to be. Flying for American, the aircraft was a common sight on routes such as New York-LaGuardia to Chicago-O’Hare, Los Angeles to Denver and Chicago to Dallas.

An American MD-80 at the gate at DFW. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Now, the Mad Dog has been relegated mostly to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport where it continues to fly the short-medium haul routes to cities such as Tulsa, Indianapolis, and New Orleans with a flight time of typically no more than 2 hours and 30 minutes, a far cry from its former glory crisscrossing the United States on a daily basis.

When an opportunity came to fly on the aircraft, I jumped on it, as it would seem to be my final flight on the aircraft before it disappears from American skies forever.

The History of the Mad Dog

Before I get into my story about flying on the MD-80 one final time, let’s go into the history of this iconic aircraft. A product of McDonnell Douglas, the aircraft was an elongated version of the Douglas Aircraft Company’s DC-9. Known for its famous T-tail and rear-mounted engines similar to also iconic Boeing 727, minus the third engine, the aircraft entered development in the late 1970s following the merger between McDonnell Aircraft and the Douglas Aircraft Company.

An Airwest DC-9 (Photo: Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to its tail and engine, the aircraft also featured a unique layout: 2-3. Anybody who has ever flown on the aircraft traveling solo or with a partner will tell you that the aisle/window combo is the perfect layout for those who like the window seat and like to stretch out in flight without disturbing too many people. The lack of a middle seat made for the perfect arrangement.

Also, keeping in line with its predecessor, the MD-80 kept its rear airstair for airside boarding. Its cockpit also had a few interesting features for the pilots, including the magnetic compass which required the use of a mirror to view, DC-3 style knobs and dial flaps. Its engines were the powerful Pratt and Whitney JT8D engines found on the Boeing 737-100 and 737-200s, Boeing 727s and the DC-9s.

Entering service in 1979 with Swissair, the precursor to SWISS International Airline, the $40 million aircraft began a whirlwind career that would see it serve some of the world’s best and worst airlines.

Swissair was the first MD-80 operator. (Photo: Michel Gilliand [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Not before long, variants of the aircraft were being developed for mission-specific customers. The MD-82 was given more powerful engines to serve hot and high airports (airports with high temperature and/or at high altitudes), the MD-83 was the long-range version of the aircraft, the MD-87 had a smaller fuselage with less capacity and the MD-88 featured a more modern cockpit focused more on electronic flight instrument systems (EFIS).

American Airlines invested heavily in the aircraft, choosing it to replace its aging Boeing 727 fleet. Starting with 20 leases from McDonnell Douglas, the Dallas-based carrier ordered more and more with nearly 400 of the type in its fleet at its peak. Wearing the red, white and blue colors of American, the aircraft was one of the most recognizable in the fleet.

American was the first major U.S. carrier to operate the type. (Photo: Ryan Patterson/@diecastryan)

Following American’s lead, other U.S. airlines including Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Trans World Airlines, ValuJet, Midwest Airlines and Allegiant Air began operating the type. From the 1980s to the 2000s, the aircraft could commonly be seen at airports such as Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, among others. It was the Mad Dog’s time to shine.

Flying for American, the MD-80 only wore one livery: red, white and blue with polished aluminum. (Photo: Ryan Patterson/@diecastryan)

Unfortunately, the aircraft couldn’t keep up with the technological advancements that the industry was seeing and it started falling behind. With fuel becoming a more and more of a variable cost, many airlines made the decision to invest in more fuel-efficient aircraft to reduce the risk that fluctuated fuel prices caused. Even the MD-90, which incorporated the V2500 engines that the A320 family uses, wasn’t enough to sustain the aircraft.

A Delta 717 at ATL (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

By the 2010s, airlines were starting to replace their MD-80 fleets. American chose the Boeing 737-800 as its replacement for the aircraft, Delta invested in Boeing 717-200s – a shorter, modern version of the MD-80 – acquired from AirTran Airways following its merger with Southwest Airlines, Allegiant is replacing its MD-80s with the Airbus A320 family and Alaska replaced its MD-80 fleet with more Boeing 737s.

Soon enough, there will be no more Mad Dogs roaming the skies.

My Journey for One Last Flight

In order to fly on the Mad Dog and be back for dinner on Long Island, I would have to leave my house at 2:30 a.m., drive across state lines and two rivers to Newark Liberty International Airport to catch a 5:00 a.m. flight to Charlotte, risk a 49-minute connection, fly onward to New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport to catch the 9:38 a.m. MD-80 flight to Dallas.

My routing for one last MD-80 flight. (Photo: GCMap.com)

However crazy it seemed, it was worth it to give the old girl a proper goodbye.

Arriving in New Orleans, an airport I had never been to before in a state I had never been to before, I was greeted by the polished aluminum tri-color livery that had disappeared from the skies following the merger of US Airways and American Airlines and the subsequent rebranding effort that including a livery change. Due to its impending retirement, American chose not to repaint these aircraft in its new colors.

The MD-80 serving flight 138 from New Orleans to Dallas. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

American lovingly calls its MD-80s “Super 80s,” and I’ve never been exactly sure why. My first flight on the aircraft was nearly 6 years ago flying from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, a city that was once frequently visited by the Mad Dog for both American and Delta, on AA350. It was the first time flying an aircraft in a 2-3 configuration and it was right around the time American installed in-flight WiFi so it was a trip filled with firsts.

The MD-80 now serves mainly short-haul routes such as MSY-DFW. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
Boarding the red, white and blue with polished aluminum aircraft was a welcomed throwback. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Having flown on the aircraft only four times prior, twice on American and twice on Delta and all when I was a mere adolescent, I was still very new to the aircraft, even though it was about to be retired.

Up close and personal with the Mad Dog. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Upon boarding the aircraft, I could tell that it was a tired workhorse, tired from decades of faithful service. Similar to its exterior, American didn’t bother to update its interior. However, the blue cloth seats were more comfortable than the Boeing 737-800 that took me home that night.

American never bothered to update the seats on these aircraft. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
The cloth seats are arguably more comfortable than American’s current economy product. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
Despite the bulky armrests, the seats were very comfortable and a nice change from American’s current gray seats. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

On this aircraft, though, there were no televisions and no power outlets. Back to basics, as it were, with the exception of the WiFi. As I was closer to the front, I received an unobstructed view as the wings are further back and the engine is not in the way. This also makes for an extremely quiet flight, unless you’re in the last row. The first thing you notice is how close to the ground you are, almost as if on a regional aircraft.

WiFi is the only form of entertainment on these aircraft. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
Outdated overhead lighting and air conditioning fixtures. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Having nobody next to me in the aisle/window side of the aircraft, I was able to stretch out and enjoy the whole 2-seat row to myself, another advantage of the 2-3 configuration. Looking out of the window, I noticed the McDonnell Douglas name on the shades, which was a first for me as I’ve never seen the manufacturer’s name on a window shade before.

McDonnell Douglas made sure the passengers knew who made the aircraft. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

As we soared over the Louisiana sky into Texas, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Sitting in my seat, I felt transported back to my first flight on the aircraft. Back then, when it was all still new to me, it seemed like the greatest plane in the sky. A reputation which held true all these years. The aircraft still had it.

Somewhere over Louisiana. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
The quiet flight brought me back to a time when flying was still new to me. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
Chasing our shadow to DFW. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Landing in Dallas, I saw the remainder of American’s MD-80 fleet, side by side with its successor, the Boeing 737-800. Although an amazing aircraft, the 737 will never fully take its place. The legend of the MD-80 will live on forever.

These planes will never receive American’s updated livery as they’re slated for retirement in 2019. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)
Another MD-80 sitting in Dallas. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

Making its Retirement Plans

It seems as though we’ve been saying goodbye to too many aircraft and airlines these past few years. Air Berlin in October, United’s 747-400 in November, Delta’s 747-400 in January, Virgin America in April and now the MD-80. However, despite the loss, the aviation industry as a whole is greater for their contribution.

An American Airlines MD-80 in the maintenance hangar. (Photo: Ryan Patterson/@diecastryan)

American Airlines has formally announced that it plans to retire its MD-80 fleet by the end of 2019, replacing it with the newer Boeing 737-800s and 737 MAX 8. Similarly, Delta Air Lines plans to retire its Mad Dog fleet by the end of 2020 and Allegiant Airlines has stated it will retire its fleet by the end of the year.

A Hawaiian Airlines 717 taking off (Photo: Ian McMurtry)

The legacy of the aircraft will live on. The Boeing 717-200, Boeing’s smaller version of the MD-80 created following its merger with McDonnell Douglas, was given a new lease on life flying for Delta Air Lines. The 717 features many of the same amenities as the MDs including a 2-3 configuration, iconic T-tail and rear-mounted engines. However, nothing will replace the Mad Dog.

If your travel plans bring you through Dallas, Atlanta or Orlando-Sanford on American, Delta or Allegiant, respectively, you just may be flying on one of these old birds. If you aren’t, I highly recommend seeking out a flight on one of them, as the MD-80 is truly one of a kind.

Thomas Pallini

Thomas Pallini

Tom has been flying for as long as he can remember. His first flight memory was on a Song Airlines 757 flying from LaGuardia to Orlando. Back then, he was afraid to fly because he thought you needed to jump off the plane in order to get off. Some years later, Tom is now a seasoned traveler, often flying to places just for the fun of it. Most of the time, he'll never leave the airport on his trips. If he's not at home or at work as a Line Service Technician at Long Island MacArthur Airport, he's off flying somewhere, but only for the day.
Thomas Pallini