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Inside Look at the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 – Guest Blog

This post is written by aviation and photography enthusiast Drew Vane about the MD-80:

Ahhh. I remember the good ole days when the aircraft were loud, smoked like a B-52 and fuel efficiency was unheard of. No, I’m not talking about the 60’s. I’m talking about yesterday.

An American Airlines MD-83 (Super 80) lifts off of Runway 36C at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

An American Airlines MD-83 (Super 80) lifts off of Runway 36C at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

As commercial aircraft manufacturers transitioned from props to jets, Douglas Aircraft Corporation developed a smaller jet aircraft for the shorter range domestic market. The 90—seat DC-9 first flew in 1965 and gave birth to additional series, culminating with the 50-series under the original DC-9 design. McDonnell-Douglas introduced its newest, longer version of the DC-9, fondly called the DC-9 Super 80, or MD-80. This 142-seat product of Long Beach, CA got its start with PSA Airlines (eventually to become US Airways). The MD-80 added 15 feet in length and 20 feet in wingspan, resulting in an additional 28 seats to the 139-seat DC-9-50.

Similarly, the MD-80 family (also called the “Mad Dogs”) has improved with each subsequent version. The MD-88 added aerodynamic improvements for longer range, a redesigned tail-cone, and glass cockpit. The MD-90 upgrade increased capacity to 150 passengers and replaced the Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines with quieter, more fuel efficient IAE V2500 engines. Following the merger of McDonnell-Douglas with Boeing in 1997, a further upgrade, the MD-95, was born which eventually became the 117 seat Boeing 717. The 717 added a more advanced cockpit, more efficient engines, fly-by wire controls, and other features to bring it into the 90’s and beyond. Strangely, the AFC (or Advanced Common Flightdeck) most closely resembles that of the massive MD-11. Over 2,400 DC-9 series aircraft have been produced over the last 40 years.

Look Ma! No Rabies!  A Delta Air lines MD-88 slows after landing at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport

Look Ma! No Rabies! A Delta Air lines MD-88 slows after landing at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport

Although the seating configuration is a bit skewed (2-3), today you’ll still find these workhorses on domestic routes for Delta, American and Allegiant here in the US. The Boeing 717 is flown in the US by AirTran (soon to be Southwest) and Hawaiian Airlines. As of midway through 2010, there were over 450 Mad Dogs still flying here in the US with 100 or so still active in other countries.

Its been a long time since my last Mad Dog flight but I was pleasantly surprised last November when I flew with my family on an AirTran Boeing 717 down to Florida. The holidays brought free WiFi and the aircraft just felt newer compared to my memories of the Mad Dogs. Here in Charlotte, there are ample opportunities to spot the Airtran 717’s and Delta MD-88’s bound for Atlanta as well as the fully loaded American Super-80 bound for Fort Worth that seems to use every inch of the runway on taking off.

Mad Dog Wannabe:  An AirTran Boeing 717 taxis onto Runway 18L at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Mad Dog Wannabe: An AirTran Boeing 717 taxis onto Runway 18L at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Unfortunately, the sun is slowly setting on these older aircraft as more eco-friendly, and efficient domestic jets continue to enter the market. American recently announced its plan to replace its fleet of MD-83’s (in addition to its 757’s and 767’s) with re-engined Boeing 737 and Airbus A320neo jets and its expected that Delta will follow in its footsteps to stay competitive. Have you had the opportunity to ride on these gas guzzlers lately? I’d love to hear about your experience.

More info on the background of the MD-80 here and MD-90 here.

All photos by Andrew Vane

25 comments to Inside Look at the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 – Guest Blog

  • drew V

    Small typo: The original DC-9-10 holds 90 seats, not 8. :)

  • While I fully appreciate the heritage of the MD-80 line, and what it brought to the table as a very popular airplane, I have grown to hate flying AA’s dirty, ragged fleet.

    Misery is going cross-country, in two flights, on packed MD-80s.

    The sooner they get parked in the desert the better.

    • Frank T

      Frank T to Frank V:
      Your misery has nothing to do with the MD-80. The airline has to take the responsibility for letting their airplane dirty and uncomfortable. I’ve flown on many Mad Dogs that were great, and of course on many with the same experience as yours. The same could be said on any airplane. It’s like comparing CX and SQ 744 flights to those operated by one of our Flag Carrier airlines.

    • I find there is a direct correlation to how far back I am sitting and how much I do not like the MD-80s. Not only engine noise, but also lav smell!

      David

      • Frank T

        I agree with you David. This is true with all rear-engine planes. I’ve flown from VC-10 to MD-90 with TU-154 and CRJ in between. The MD-90 seems to be quite a bit better at the last few rows.

  • MVFlyer

    The 717 should feel newer than the -80s–the last 717 delivered to AirTran (and the last 717 off the line) was in 2006, only five years ago.

  • RNB

    McDonnell = airplanes

    McDonald = hamburgers

    Check the headline. :)

  • jmx53

    Flew Allegiant Air in June/July 2010. EUG – OAK round trip…a little less than 1hr each way. Was on the N405NV (Blue Man Group) on the return leg.

    Thoughts on the MD-80…smooth flights each way. EUG primary runway 34L-16R (8000′) was being repaved, so alternate runway 34R-16L (6000′) was used…Takeoff and landing with full passenger load easily handled with no uncomfortable forces. Boarding and deplaning in OAK was through jetbridge only. In EUG they use both jetbridge and rear airstairs to speed turnaround time, (you have to climb outdoor stairs to get to 2nd flr of terminal if you opt for the airstairs). It is always great to walk on the ramp and see your aircraft, instead of walking down a boring jetbridge. Fairly quiet cabin because of the rear mounted engines. Only complaint about the aircraft, on both legs there was a loud blaring tone over the PA whenever the cabin crew made any announcements…Is this normal to this type of aircraft? Announcements from flight deck sounded fine. A photo I took on approach to EUG: http://www.wunderground.com/wximage/viewsingleimage.html?mode=singleimage&handle=jmx53&number=15

    Thoughts on Allegiant Air: the way they have their website set up, it is VERY EASY to have extra unwanted charges added to your ticket cost if you are not paying attention!!! Gate agents, cabin crew, and flight crew all friendly and professional dealing with passengers. Aircraft clean on the outside, but passenger cabins didn’t get much cleaning between flights…discarded napkins and food crumbs on floor. Tickets were only $35 each way, so can’t complain too much though.

  • DrewV

    Thanks for all the great comments and discussion. I would love to experience one of these again before they’re gone forever.

  • Daniel

    Don’t worry, Delta’s MD-88s are here for a while, at least 2018 from what I’ve heard from Corporate. The MD-90s even longer. In fact, they are just now getting around to DC-9 retirements and the new 739s will only replace 757s and A320s.

  • Drew, fabulous post. The MD-80 is actually one of few older aircraft that I got a chance to fly on (missed the 727 :()

  • Alex

    While I love anything McD built, I cannot for the life of me fathom why the airlines put (and the FAA allows) seats next to the engines. Not only does the lav issue and the noise make the flight pure misery, but any kind of engine failure will (and has) go straight through the cabin. I know of at least one fatal accident (Pensacola 1996) where this has happened, yet no one takes action on a corporate level or make legislative effort to move passengers away from the *$&!@ engine. I guess removing those last ten seats would make the MD-80’s uneconomical, and there hasn’t been enough blood on the NTSB reports for the FAA to care or do anything about it.

    • Alex,

      I think because it is just so rare for people to be hurt and injured from the rear engines. Parts can also fly up from wing-based engines too. I think it is just a risk of flying that people have to be willing to take.

      David

  • Erica

    My least favorite flight ever (and now I don’t remember what airline) was an MD-80. I am not a frequent flyer per se, but I traveled to and from Seattle quite a bit to visit family. I thought the floor was going to collapse when the wheels went up, it was SO noisy. I am certain I was in the rear, too, and so it was a really, really noisy flight. I swore after that flight I would always pay attention to my fight segment and the plane type. I have never been on another one since. Thank goodness. I like my Boeing aircraft. Though I do end up on Airbus a lot, too.
    **come to think of it, I believe I was on an Alaska Air flight for my MD-80 experience. I’m almost certain. It was before they retired the majority of the fleet, but after that terrible incident in CA. That idea didn’t comfort me, either. (Sea – Oakland, I think). Not quite 10 years ago.

  • Long live t-tails and rear mounted smoke blowers!

    Call me crazy but the 717 is my favorite plane. I sure miss that AMAZING all first-class cabin that Midwest offered. Love them so much that I flew up to Milwaukee and bought a pair of surplus signature service seats for my office.

    I flew Airtran for the first time last year, wasn’t too impressed. It was sort of a let down. Allegiant last year too, an 83 or 87, if I’m not mistaken. Now that was a fun (and comfortable!) experience.

  • jeff greene

    I’ve flown on Delta’s MD-88 12 times this year. Looking at my Delta flight history, I’ve flown 110 segments on the MD-88 in my lifetime (I’m 32). The highlight this year was the night in Atlanta when the jetway failed and I got to exit out of the rear tail door.

    I used to hate them when I was younger and obsessed with the widebodies that Delta commonly flew between ATL and PBI. Nothing impressed me more than the L-1011. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve come to appreciate the MD-88.

    I love the 727 and it is the closest thing to it that you can currently fly on – but also in terms of comfort, when I fly with my girlfriend, nothing beats sitting in two seats towards the front of the plane. It’s virtually (compared to wing-mounted engine airplanes) silent…that being said, I agree with the comment above regarding love of the plane coinciding with your seat location. If you get stuck towards the rear, the sound is deafening and the smell from the lavs can definitely be strong. And by the way, having flown an AA Super 80 from ORD to PBI in May I can definitely say that American’s Super 80’s are nowhere near as nice as Delta’s.

    I live a half mile north of the landing path for PBI and get to see Delta’s MD-88’s and American’s Super 80’s daily. I know that when they eventually are retired that I’ll be a little sad.

  • After a hiatus of about 15 years, I recently flew an MD-83 (Spanair, Madrid-Barcelona), all I can say is that the 2-3 configuration felt weird, as did boarding through the rear staircase, but overall a positive experience!

  • drew V

    Thanks again for the kind words and all the comments. I’m happy to see how this article sparked the discussion in flying on older aircraft. I will miss them too when they’re all eventually retired.

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  • Nick

    I can’t help but loving McDonnell Douglas Airplanes. All and every single one.

  • Michael

    My first ride I still remember, it was a Northwest airlines DC-9-30 bound from Buffalo NY to Detroit. I remember waiting at the gate looking down at the distinctly long fuselage that terminated to a high T-tail with one of the elevator sections trim in the deflected position. The weather was light winds and a steady however light snow that would slowly disappear as it touched the old ship. This was my first time flying anywhere! I remember it like it was yesterday! The taxi out to to the active runway was filled with anticipation and some unavoidable fear being my first experience. The turn on the runway was what I remember most, I was seated just behind the right wing of the plane and hearing those JT8D’s wind slowly to full power and the slow flex of the wing was amazing. The charge down the runway followed by a powerful high angle climb was enough of a event to hold my breath being a unexperienced air traveler.

    That was in 1998 and I have flown a number of times after that but on other aircraft, namely Airbus, CRJ etc. Almost 10 years to the date (2008) I boarded a Airtran 717 (MD-95) that was bound for West palm beach FL. It brought back some memories of my first flight however I remember the DC-9 being louder and without the amenities of the Airtran ship. I know that these will not be in the skies forever but they have made a impact on aviation like no other aircraft type ever will in my opinion. Linking airports that normally were served by turbo prop aircraft with efficient (won’t get to crazy with efficient as it did chug fuel like a freshman drinking keg beer at a frat party!) and fast jet travel.

    Take care and safe travels,

    Mike

  • Tom Martin

    I grew up in Long Beach, near Long Beach Airport. In fact, I remember seeing the Super 80’s first flight – it flew right over my school (I was in 5th grade), in October of 1979! I saw many of the MD80 come out of the factory. It was great when TWA and AA both ordered 25 right about the same time. Then Alitalia, and Delta came with huge orders.

    The MD87 was mildly successful, but the MD90 was supposed to be the plane of the future. Alaska ordered 40 and Delta order up to 60 (I think). Unfortunately, the first Gulf War, recession, and fate, the MD90 didn’t sell as hoped. AS canceled their complete order, and DL took the first 16 and canceled the remainder. Probably, ‘almost free of charge’ A320s pushed by Airbus, which was a new design (as opposed to a derivative of a 1960’s design), may have been a factor as well. Ironically, 20 years later, Delta saw the value of the MD90, and has acquired 60 of the type for all parts of the world (including a few made in China under license from MD). Add to the 88 717/MD95s!

    During the heyday of the DFW Hub, late 80’s and early 90’s, with AA and Delta operating a DFW Hub, about 75% of all flights were Super 80s! It was truly Super 80 Heaven.

    I went to work for AA in 1991 – 8 years after the first Super 80 flew in the system. I flew lots of miles of Super 80 – the 2X3 configuration was great. And actually liked sitting in the back (which I did a lot as a non-rev)…I called them the rumble seats! The best seat for me was the aisle seat across from the rear galley door. It was also a flight attendant station – I would chat with the FAs during take off and landing. I always wanted to be on AA’s last Super 80 flight. As someone who grew up in LGB, and work for AA, it would have been very sentimental – emotional! I left AA in 2007 (24 years after the first Super 80 flew for AA). I thought I would outlast the Super 80, looks like they outlasted me.

    It’s amazing, 34 years after it’s first flight, the MD80 is still a major workhorse for two of the three major carriers…AA and DL!

  • Eric

    It will be a shame to see the MD-80s go. Two inches extra width per coach seat vs a 737 makes a HUGE difference. Not to mention on the AB there is no middle seat.

    Not to mention the new 737s with the warped wings are ugly. MD-80 is a sleek and beautiful aircraft.

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