Countdown to Retirement: American Airlines Super 80s
MIAMI — Back in 1982, American Airlines (AA) placed an original order for 20 McDonnell Douglas MD-80s. Now, 34 years later, the Dallas / Ft. Worth-based carrier readies the retirement of 20 of the type in a single day, one of the largest one-day retirements in airline history.
A Robust and Distinguished History
In 1977, when McDonnell-Douglas launched the MD-80 program, it was technically unveiling its newest DC-9. It was 14 feet longer than the DC-9-50 and embodied the original DC-9’s type certification, which dated back from 1965. The first flight took place in 1979 and two years later it entered into service with Swissair (HB-INA • MSN 48000 • LN 909).
Durable engineering fosters the MD-80’s longevity. Its fuel, electrical, flight control, and hydraulic systems are direct DC-9 carryovers. Many of the DC-9’s design quirks endure in MD-80 cockpits. The No Smoking sign is still labeled ‘NO SMOK’, and the square-cornered lights on the cluttered overhead panel are AC-powered; the tear-dropped shaped toggles are DC driven.
However, the magnetic compass is arguably the strangest link. Interference from the electric windshield heat warrants its peculiar placement—embedded in the ceiling behind the First Officer’s head. Two mirrors (one for each pilot) sit atop the glare shield and flip upward to display the instrument’s reflection (if one looks directly at the compass, the numbers and cardinal heading letters are backwards).
Although the MD-80 displays its DC-9 heritage, the so-called Mad Dog has additional features that are entirely its own. Its autopilot can ‘auto-land’ in low-visibility conditions and complies with present-day RNAV (area navigation) routes and procedures. Amber-colored digital readouts displaying heading, course, altitude, and navigation frequencies are illuminated on the Flight Guidance Control Panel.
The ‘Dial-a-Flap’ system is also MD-80 specific. For optimal performance, flight crews can select variable takeoff flap settings in addition to the standard detent of 11 degrees. The system also utilizes the selector wheel on approach; 23 degrees are commonly dialed-in before extending the landing gear and selecting final landing flaps.
The Cornerstone of American Airlines Fleet
McDonnell-Douglas bestowed the Super 80 moniker on the aircraft, and American Airlines kept it. The airline’s June 1983 timetable introduces customers to the new fleet: “Share the excitement of this next step in aviation. A great airline and a great airplane for the Eighties. American’s Super 80.”
After the original 20 aircraft order in 1982, the type found a home in AA. By 1990, the carrier booked another 240 —considered the largest aircraft order ever placed at that time.
The MD-80s’ arrival helped position AA for growth and streamlined labor costs. Along with the Boeing 767-200s, the elongated aircraft had the airline’s first two-pilot cockpit. American’s DC-10s, Boeing 727s, and 747-100s all operated with flight engineers.
Interestingly, the AA MD-80 fleet was comprised by two types, the MD-82 and MD-83—the primary difference being the latter’s 7,000-pound extra fuel capacity and increased max-gross weight of 160,000 pounds. American’s first MD-83 was delivered in June 1987.
By July 1999, timetables had ample ‘M80’ aircraft codes. Route map boundaries extended across North America, from Calgary to Cabo San Lucas, and from Seattle to Miami, the MD-80 proved to be a reliable workhorse that bolstered American’s domestic network and provided financial benefits through economy of scale.
When AA acquired Reno Air and TWA in 1999 and 2001, respectively, the airline’s MD-80 fleet swelled to over 370 aircraft. McDonnell-Douglas built 1,191 MD-80s—nearly one-third of which belonged to American. The carrier was, by far, the world’s most prolific operator of the type. The last MD-80 rolled out of the production line was delivered to TWA (N984TW • MSN 53634 • LN 2287).
To date, 431 MD-80s still flying in the world. Of these, 272 are operating in the U.S. Continental Airlines in 2005 and Alaska Airlines in 2008 were the last major U.S. airlines to retire the MD-80. American will retire the type in 2018.
AA briefly operated Reno Air’s MD-90s and TWA’s 717s. However, neither aircraft was integrated into the fleet or donned AA’s full livery and titles.
The End of the Mad Dog Era
With the departure of these 20 MD-80s today, American Airlines Super 80 fleet decreased to 61. AA expects to retire 45 MD-80 during this year, taking the total fleet of the type to 52 by the end of the year.
The remaining aircraft will be progressively phased out, coinciding with aircraft deliveries stemming from AA’s 2011 massive $4.6 billion order for 200 Boeing 737s and 260 Airbus A320 family aircraft. These new airplanes offer inflight entertainment systems, have greater range, and are more efficient.
As the Mad Dog era with American Airlines fades away, the legacy of the AA’s legacy will go on, now serving with other carriers that rely on the MD-80 as a valued and dependable workhorse in their fleets worldwide.