ATLANTA — Appropriately tagged as Delta flight 2014, the last scheduled U.S. commercial DC-9 flight landed at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 7:32PM EST. The touchdown of flight 2014 marks the end of the DC-9’s 48 year career of scheduled commercial flight in the United States. Although saying farewell to the airplane is bittersweet for aviation enthusiasts, the final flight is a welcome step for Delta as they continue a trend of replacing older aircraft with newer, more efficient frames.
A small but vibrant ceremony complete with balloons and cake greeted passengers in Minneapolis as they arrived for an otherwise mundane flight to Atlanta. The significance of the final flight number, 2014, along with the penultimate flight number of 1965, did not go unnoticed by many. Any DC-9 fan can tell you the airplane entered service in ’65, leaving today in 2014.
And there were no shortage of ‘Dirty-Niner’ (the plane has several nicknames), fans on hand. Dozens of DC-9 enthusiasts traveled from across the US for one last ride, many trekking through the deep freeze that has gripped the nation over the past few days. They gathered at the gate and on board, swapping stories, taking photos, and otherwise basking in the glory of being one of the last to fly aboard the cozy two-three configured cabin.
The two hour flight passed quickly once aloft, and was decidedly low-key. The high moment came when a bottle, or two, of champagne was passed around the cabin. A toast to the airplane was made, after which it was back to business as usual on board. The flight landed on time in a comparatively warm Atlanta, effectively ending 48 years of scheduled passenger flights in the US.
A nod to the airplane’s days plying the skies over the North Central US, the last two flights made sure to work in former Northwest DC-9 hubs Detroit DTW and Minneapolis/St. Paul MSP. It was perhaps fitting, then, that the airplane made its last visit to both as temperatures plunged well below zero, conditions the venerable aircraft had faced on a daily basis for years.
The airplane has finally been phased out as newer airplanes, such as the Boeing 717, join the ranks of the Delta fleet. The carrier has embarked on an ambitious, albeit unorthodox, fleet renewal plan as of late. Many smaller and older regional jets, such as the DC-9 and CRJ-200s are being replaced by larger and more efficient 717s and CRJ900s. New Boeing 737-900 airplanes will begin replacing older 757-200s. Down the road, orders for fresh airplanes, mostly from Airbus for A321 & A330 types, will join the fleet as well. The combination of leveraging both used and new airplanes to realize profits has made the airline a unique case as competitors gun for the latest and greatest on the production lines instead.
Despite the final flight today, the airplane will continue to serve Delta for up to two more weeks on an ad hoc basis. Come the end of the month, it will be gone for good.
The Legendary Past of the Dirty-Niner
When the DC-9 began service in 1965 the 737 was three years away, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the Ford Mustang had just been introduced, the United States was in Vietnam, the price of a Coke was 10-15 cents, the population of America was 194,302,963, there were three networks, the internet was still thirty years into the future, and the 727 only entered service a year before (with Eastern in 1964). Prior to ’65, there was an increasing need for an aircraft for for frequent short-range flights to small airports with short runways. Consequently, Douglas started developing the DC-9 in 1962, and Delta flew the very first passenger flight on December 8, 1965. Without any serious competition, the Dirty Niner quickly became the backbone of Delta’s short-haul fleet.
From 1965 to 1982, Douglas delivered a total of 972 DC-9s in eleven different variations to dozens of airlines and government organizations around the world. As of August 2013, there were 90 DC-9 aircraft in commercial service worldwide. USA Jet Airlines (a charter company in the United States), Everets Air Cargo, Aeronaves, TSM, Aserca Airlines, LASER Airlines, Fly Sax, African Express Airways, and a few other small operators still fly the DC-9.
Delta flew the DC-9-10 and DC-9-30 Series from 1965 to 1993. They started taking delivery of the Boeing 737-200 in 1983 which eventually allowed Delta to phase out their entire DC-9 fleet. However, the DC-9 re-joined Delta’s fleet when they merged with Northwest Airlines in 2008. Northwest acquired their DC-9s from Republic Airlines in 1986.
Since it entered service 49 years ago, only the DC-8, 707, and DC-3 have matched this longevity for passenger service. However, the DC-9 has lasted the longest of any commercial airliner ever built in frontline, mainline service. In the time the DC-9 has been plying the skies over the US the country has faced three major wars, nine US Presidents, and population growth to 317 million, all while Delta went from a smallish trunk line to the second largest airline in the world.
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.
Today’s airplane, N773NC, first flew in 1978, delivering to North Central in 1978, and it flew for Republic in 1979. The plane began flying for Northwest Airlines in 1986, following the purchase of Republic. It later went on to operate for Delta in 2009 after the carrier merged with Northwest.