American Airlines retired the last of its MD-80 fleet on Sept. 4, with fanfare.
It is easy to see why: The venerable aircraft, introduced into its fleet in 1982, was the aircraft that helped it expand and part of why American wanted to merge with TWA. After the merger, the “Mad Dog” fleet numbered 362 at its peak.
I was one of the lucky ones to fly on an MD-80 on Sept. 4—one of two nonrevenue passenger flights (employees and media) from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to Roswell, New Mexico (ROW), where the aircraft will be parked. We watched four subsequent MD-80s fly into ROW, lining up with their brethren. The last to land in Roswell, N984TW, was also the ultimate one to fly a revenue flight, as AA880 from DFW to Chicago O’Hare, before two captains then flew the plane empty to Roswell.
While emotions ran high in Roswell, it was more of a celebration of the aircraft—by mechanics, crew chiefs, cabin cleaners, schedulers and pilots. People knew that aircraft inside and out. For instance, a mechanic had me step into the hydraulics bay by the landing gear, then showed me the catwalk in the tail cone that led to the air conditioning systems. A flight attendant had worked on the aircraft for its history with the airline. A chief pilot showed me how the unique tail cone also housed an emergency slide that could deploy—as well as the air stairs from the back that were used before jet bridges became common. He explained why he tipped the wings to the right—and then the left—as we were departing DFW—a salute to DFW air traffic control, which called the flight Mad Dog on the ground, also as a salute, in recognition of the importance of the flight.
The MD-80, which featured a clamshell assembled fuselage, included a 2 X 3 seat configuration, with big comfy seats. As a pilot said, it was the Cadillac of the skies—heralding an era that predates today’s revenue management mandates. It was an airplane from the 1980s—no GPS and full of hydraulics—but consider what it was replacing: the Boeing 727, which required a three-pilot crew.
I am the first to admit it’s easy to become fixated on new technology and the possibilities it can bring. Isn’t it exciting to fly on the next-generation aircraft and wish you weren’t stuck on an old aircraft? The MD-80 did draw criticism from passengers and maintenance about being outdated and unreliable as newer aircraft came online.
For American, even though 24 of its Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are grounded, CEO Doug Parker says extending the life of the MD-80s did not make sense. The engines would have required full overhauls, and the pilots are needed on newer aircraft. So it “wasn’t possible to keep this aircraft flying longer,” Parker tells me. It was time to retire the fleet.
While that all makes sense, I was touched by how much this particular aircraft affected people. One of the two pilots who flew the last revenue flight was on my return flight from ROW to DFW after the retirement ceremony, and I asked him how he was feeling. It had been a great, but long, day, and he said this was his sixth time flying an MD-80 on its final flight to Roswell and parking a “perfectly good aircraft.” It is kind of hard to shut down the engines for the final time, he said.
Anybody with 30 years of experience flying or maintaining an aircraft feels a certain intimacy with it. Pilots will move on to Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s, and mechanics are already servicing other narrowbodies, but a fondness for flying or fixing an aircraft for decades is a powerful memory—and in the case of the Mad Dog—a good one.
To everyone involved in the MD-80 program, I salute you.