MIAMI — Five decades ago, the very first McDonnell Douglas DC-9 entered into service with its launch customer, Delta Air Lines.
Devised for frequent and short flights, and to serve small airports with short runways and basic airport infrastructure, the DC-9 became one of Douglas’ best selling aircraft ever, with a long story of models derived. From the short DC-9-10 to the stretched DC-9-50, the classic DC-9 family served around the world, becoming popular among travelers and cherished by the flight crews.
The World’s first DC-9 service took place on November 29, 1965, three months ahead of schedule. The DC-9-14 registered N3305L (Delta Ship 205) served flight 791 from Atlanta to Kansas City via Memphis. The daily scheduled service began a week later on December 8. Eventually, Delta became one of the main DC-9 operators in the world, operating all classic DC-9 variants but one type (the DC-9-20 version was specifically built for SAS, which was its sole customer).
Delta did not necessarily start with all of their DC-9s, however. Through the process of acquisition and mergers, the airplanes flew for regional and full services carriers alike, such as North Central, Southern, Hughes AirWest, Republic, and Northwest. During this time, Delta also purchased Western (1986) and Northeast (1973). All told, the carrier has operated 305 DC-9 aircraft since 1965, despite phasing out the airplanes by 1994 until its merger in 2008 with Northwest. Based on a 65% average load factor, Delta estimates they have flown about one billion passengers on the DC-9.
Delta operated a strong DC-9 fleet, relying basically in the DC-9-30 type. Eventually, the Boeing 737-200 and 727-200 replaced the DC-9, and the last DC-9-30 was retired from Delta’s fleet in 1993. However, after almost a 16 year hiatus and thanks to the merger into Northwest Airlines, the Atlanta-based carrier took 97 DC-9s. Of these, 51 were of the -30 type, 12 of the -40 variant and 34 of the -50 series. The -30 and -40 models remained in service until 2011, and the last DC-9-50 was retired from Delta Air Lines in January 2014.
The official Delta farewell took place on January 6, 2014, with the last two flights numbered DL1965 (first year of DC-9 service) and DL2014 (last year of DC-9 service). Flight DL2014 flew from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Atlanta. Two DC-9’s remained with Delta for several weeks to fill in for delayed Boeing 717 deliveries. On January 22, 2014, Delta operated the final DC-9 flight (DL310) with DC-9, N779NC, flying from Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso, Florida, to Atlanta.
The legacy of the DC-9 at Delta Air Lines continues with a vast MD-80 / MD-90 / Boeing 717 fleet which is currently serving the airline and stills growing as more MD-90s from defunct Hello Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Japan Airlines and Blue1 have joined the fleet. Also, the airline is keen to acquire all Boeing 717s available in the market (Although commercialized as a Boeing aircraft, the technical name was going to be MD-95 before the merger between McDonnell Douglas and Boeing in 1997). Just in 2012, Delta inked a deal to take 88 ex-AirTran 717s from Southwest Airlines, as the carrier didn’t want to alter its all-Boeing 737 fleet, and even the Delta Flight Museum hosts a DC-9-50, (Registration N657MC) as part of its permanent collection.
With over 200 Douglas aircraft still in service, Delta will be one of the last (if not the last) McDonnell Douglas passenger aircraft operator in the world as several of these aircraft are still low in cycles and may last in the fleet for up to two decades. Who could imagine back 50 years ago that the Diesel 9 legacy would last that much? How time flies…