ROME — It seemed a moment that would never come, yet on October 31, 2017, it happened.
On that day, at 22:22. Meridiana’s MD-82 (I-SMES) operating as flight IG1116 from Rome Fiumicino to Olbia Costa Smeralda, closely followed by sistership I-SMET arriving from Milan Linate as flight IG1208 touched down for the very last time at the Sardinian airport on a regularly scheduled commercial service, marking the closure of an era in the Italian aviation scene that lasted for more than 33 years.
The MD-80 series has a long-standing reputation both with crews and passengers alike in the Italian skies, having been a familiar presence ever since 1983 when Alitalia and its subsidiary ATI first introduced the type, flying up to 90 examples of the type in its heydays, the -80s taking over the medium haul routes that had been previously served between 1976-1983 by the 727-200s.
Willing to upgrade its fleet to the latest generation of jetliners, Meridiana, or to be more precise Alisarda as Italy’s oldest independent carrier was then known placed an order for two examples of the new generation twin-jet in the early 1980’s.
The carrier had already been a long-time McDonnell Douglas customer having operated DC-9-15s since 1972, followed later by DC-9-32s and -51s.
The airline’s two first factory fresh MD-82s, originally placed in the Swiss register as HB-IKK and HB-IKL (the aircraft were then owned by Airfinco, a Swiss-based lessor) and immaculately painted in the airline’s colourful yet decidedly elegant red, yellow and purple livery reminiscent of its Sardinian heritage, were delivered to the carrier’s home base of Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport (OLB), Sardinia, respectively on September 20 and 27, 1984, starting what can be easily stated as the longest ever relationship, or shall we say love affair, between an Italian operator and an aircraft type, lasting more than 33 years.
Having been associated with Alisarda and later for Meridiana for 25 years – between May 1989 and November 2014 through the good, and most recently troubled times – before our roads somehow diverged, my aviation career has therefore been intimately connected with the sleek McDonnell Douglas twin-jet, which I had the opportunity to appreciate throughout the different roles I played while working for the airline, in my ultimate days there as Head of Fleet, Network Planning and Commercial Alliances, as well as to this day as a very frequent passenger, having averaged between 90-120 flights per year on the type in the last two decades.
I very much remember my first days at Alisarda back in May 1989, when the fleet consisted of five glorious DC-9-51s (I-SMEA, I-SMEI, I-SMEJ, I-SMEO and I-SMEU), and the original pair of MD-82s (HB-IKK and HB-IKL, later to respectively become I-SMEL and I-SMEM) which had been joined by I-SMET, delivered in 1987, and I-SMEV in 1988. During the busy summer of my first year at Alisarda the fleet of the Sardinian carrier grew by no less than two units, another DC-9-51 (I-SMEE) having joined along with a further MD-82, (I-SMEP), which was delivered on August 21.
To cope with its then fast-growing network, expanding much beyond its original domain of Sardinia-mainland Italy services, and after having switched its name to Meridiana while introducing a slightly revised livery, in 1991 another three MD-82s (I-SMER, I-SMES and PH-SEZ to later become I-SMEZ) joined the fleet.
I still vividly and fondly remember the delivery of PH-SEZ, at that time being Manager on Duty at the airline’s OPS Control Center (OCC).
With an expected flight plan taking the aircraft from Marana, AZ, to Amsterdam-Schiphol via Montreal Mirabel (YMX), Canada, and Keflavik (KEF), Iceland, we had been in contact with the crew before their departure from YMX, and at the Operations Control Room we were eagerly awaiting to receive the telex indicating a safe landing at KEF, which wasn’t coming, comprehensibly starting to create some apprehension.
Yet, less than half an hour after the expected ETA in KEF the long-awaited teletype message finally came from the Icelandic airport Control Center stating that thanks to extremely strong tailwinds the crew had elected to continue to its final destination, AMS, where it actually landed less than three hours later after completing an impressive and faultless non-stop flight from Canada.
I can still feel the huge sense of relief and the happiness and joy that burst in the OCC room, applause and hugs lauding the considerable achievement, Meridiana having “unofficially” completed its first ever non-stop transatlantic crossing – and that was on a jet that had not been designed to be a long-hauler!
With the starting of the withdrawal of the DC-9-51 fleet in 1997, a first MD-83 (EI-CIW) was introduced. Within Meridiana all MD-83s joining the fleet were immediately brought to -82 standard, comfortably seating 165 passengers (reduced from 172 of the original configuration) and the first example was followed in 1998 by no less than four more (EI-CKM, I-SMEC, EI-CRE, all -83s) along with another “natural” -82 (I-SMEB).
The following year, another set of four -83s (EI-CRJ, to later become I-SMEN, EI-CRH, I-SMED and EI-CRW) arrived at our OLB base, starting to enjoy their new career under the Sardinian sun.
The final sample of the type to join the Meridiana fleet was MD-83 EI-CNR, delivered to Olbia on July 5, 2007: it was also the one with the shortest career in the airline, being withdrawn in July 2011.
In total eighteen MD-80 airframes – although in recent years the fleet froze on seventeen – had the distinction of proudly wearing the livery of the Sardinian carrier.
During their tenure with Meridiana, each member of the MD-80 family also had the honour of being officially christened for a period of time, re-taking a tradition of the airline dating back to its very beginning when 1966/67 when its Nord Aviation Nord 262A I-SARL and I-SARP were given respectively the names of “Costa Smeralda” and “Gallura”.
It was again on 23 June 2004, that further to an agreement between the airline and the Italian Ministry for the Environment and Territory – part of a program aimed at promoting and increasing the public awareness and interest in the Marine Protected Areas in various locations around Italy – each aircraft in the fleet was given the name of a Marine Protected Area.
The names – written in the Company’s traditional Baskerville font – were emblazoned below the cockpit windows on both the right and left-hand sides, while a sticker displaying the Italian Republic logo and the Ministry website address was applied on the fuselage, next to the forward entry door.
Meridiana’s MD80s were given mostly island or peninsulae names, promoting areas such as Portofino or Cinque Terre, but also lesser known yet fascinating places such as the Island of Tavolara, a rugged and wild protected area just a few miles off the northeastern coast of Sardinia, or Miramare nel Golfo di Trieste, while inside the cabins a map detailing the Marine Protected Areas was applied to the forward coatroom bulkhead, and stickers depicting colourful photographic images of each Area were placed on the PSUs (Passenger Service Units) above each row of seats, giving passengers the opportunity to glimpse the beautiful environment and underwater marvels to be enjoyed at each Protected Area.
Along the more than three decades of impeccable service with Alisarda/Meridiana the MD-80, affectionately nicknamed “Ottantone” (Big Eighty in Italian) within the airline, became the true backbone of the fleet and a trademark for the Sardinian carrier, as well as a distinctive sight in the Italian and European airports and skies.
Its legendary reliability and versatility enabled it to fly almost anywhere on the route network – with the exception of the Florence airport base, where the demanding runway dictated a dedicated fleet of BAe146-200s, later replaced by Airbus A319-112s – on almost all of its scheduled domestic and international services, ranging from the short “bread and butter” multiple daily hops between Olbia (OLB) and Rome Fiumicino (FCO) and vice-versa, over a stage length of just 135 nm taking as low as 24-25 minutes in the air, or between the tiny airport of the island of Pantelleria (PNL) and Palermo (PMO), to much longer segments like Verona (VRN) to Tenerife South (TFS), or Milan Malpensa (MXP) to Sharm-el-Sheikh (SSH), taking close to four hours in the air.
Literally, generations of Sardinian residents living both around Olbia and Cagliari have grown accustomed to recognizing the distinctive silhouette of the MD-80 as the airplane “par excellence”, for many of them the type being also the first aircraft model they flew in.
A gradual withdrawal from service actually started in 2010, when three aircraft left the fleet, partially replaced by A320s drawn from Eurofly (this carrier having merged with Meridiana in 2006) and later Boeing 737s operated by Air Italy (which became part of the Meridiana Group a few years later).
Yet despite in the last fifteen years very often speculations of a soon to come definitive replacement circulated, it was not until the arrival of Qatar Airways in the shareholder of the airline that these voices actually started to become reality, with a set date of a complete retirement of the type from scheduled services as of October 31, 2017.
Having donated for posterity the original I-SMEL to the Volandia Museum in Milan-Malpensa, by the end of 2016 only seven MD-80s were left operating at the airline, and this number further dwindled to just four examples (I-SMEN, I-SMER, I-SMES and I-SMET) mostly operating out of the Olbia (OLB) and Cagliari (CAG) bases for the Summer 2017 season.
In their final season the sleek twinjets in their evergreen livery still had a chance to show as they done faultlessly for so many years their elegant lines around most Italian airports, while also calling in at Nice, Paris-CDG, and London-LGW on the airline’s regular summer services, passengers still enjoying their well-kept interiors and the quietness of their cabins, along with the professionalism and traditional courteousness of the Meridiana crews.
Most of the retired aircraft no longer had a market, leaving no other choice than having them scrapped upon retirement at the OLB base. What a sad view seeing the likes of good old I-SMEZ/PH-SEZ, the same young guy that once had flown non-stop from Canada to Amsterdam ending its days parted out at its very homeplace…
It was therefore a must do for me to be onboard the final flights of the faithful and reliable McDonnell Douglas stablemate, to celebrate in my own way the legacy of this great airliner and of the men and women, crews, technicians and airline’s employees, that along all those years took well care of the fleet of twinjets, maintaining it in top-notch conditions both inside and out.
October 31, 2017, an era draws to an end
So here we come to October 31, 2017. My day started, as it is often the case, with an early wake-up to catch flight IG1111, Meridiana’s flagship service between the airline’s headquarter of Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport (OLB) and Rome Fiumicino (FCO), scheduled at 7:00.
Although no specific ceremony was held to say farewell to the MD-80, it was evident within the small team of airport employees and crews alike that this day was not ordinary fare. Operated by I-SMER, with Cpt. Luca Ermacora at the controls, the venerable -82 was off blocks bang on time at 7:00 and in the air six minutes later, directly heading seaward for its last regular service to Rome.
The flight was smooth and uneventful, just as hundreds of other flights I had enjoyed flying in the -80’s quiet forward cabin, enjoying the generous pitch and comfortable dark blue leather seating, flying through a part cloudy sky announcing some showers later in the day.
Having approached FCO from the northwest as it is most often the case we finally touched down on runway 16L at 7:42 and were at our gate in terminal 3 at 7:48.
Before disembarking I could chat a bit with the crew, the Captain sharing his sadness on the fact that the return leg to OLB as flight IG1112 would have been his last flight on the -80. It was not without some melancholy that I left for the last time good old “Echo Romeo” waving it goodbye and good luck.
Later in the day while in Rome for business, I had a chance to see that the morning events had attracted good social media attention, with numerous posts showing footages of I-SMER’s returning at its OLB home base in the morning as flight IG1112 from FCO, its final arrival being greeted by a very well deserved water cannon salute, courtesy of OLB’s firemen brigade.
Yet my day of memories with the -80 was far from over as I had booked myself on IG1116, FCO to OLB, my standard “commuter” flight back home, scheduled at 21:35 from the major Italian airport, this expectedly being the “very last” scheduled departure of a Meridiana MD-82, questioning what would have been my final ride. I-SMER having terminated its career in the morning, chances were left for the flight being operated either by I-SMEN, I-SMES – my preferred baby in the fleet – or I-SMET.
Once at the airport, by 19:30, a check to Flightradar24 confirmed me the good news that IG1116 would have indeed been flown by “Echo Sierra” (I-SMES (c/n 49902) originally delivered to the airline on December 13, 1991), definitely the -80 I flew most often in its final year with Meridiana, and the one that I thanked thoroughly in February 2017 for having brought me back safely on terra firma after a particularly turbulent flight and an exceptionally bumpy approach and landing with gale forces wind while landing in OLB, not such an uncommon situation at my local airport, yet another testimony to the professionalism of Meridiana crews and to the reliability of the -80.
Having convinced a couple of good friends that were due to fly on the previous 20:30 IG1114 B737-800 service, delayed to 21:30, to switch to flight IG1116 to celebrate the last flight, together we finally headed at around 21:00 to gate D7, where Flight IG1116 boarding was being prepared.
As in the morning flight from OLB, although no formal farewell activities had been envisaged by the airline, the ground personnel was well aware of the historical moment, this representing also the very last MD-80 scheduled service from FCO, an airport which had seen in years gone by the largest majority of its daily movements operated by the Alitalia and Meridiana MD fleets.
Having shared a chat on the event with Barbara, the always gentle Meridiana Supervisor at FCO, I was the first to board“Echo Sierra”, being greeted onboard by the smiling all ladies cabin crew headed by Purser Patrizia Patrizio.
In the cockpit, the honor of operating the last flight went to Cpt. Stefano Tisselli and F/O Stefano Selva, while also another good friend and historical Meridiana person, Cpt. Antonio Depau, had specifically arrived from OLB to be on this last flight.
With a relatively light load of just 74 passengers we were finally ready to go, pushing back with a slight delay at 21:42, while numerous ground personnel was taking pictures of this final departure, waving goodbye to the proud bird, once such a familiar sight in FCO.
After a welcome onboard by the Captain, addressing passengers with a note that underlined this was indeed a final flight, I-SMER headed as done thousands of times to the threshold of runway 25, which points almost exactly in the direction of OLB, and after a couple of Alitalia Airbuses we were ready to go, quickly heading skywards towards the Tyrrhenian Sea with the usual sporty attitude that typifies the MD.80 takeoff run. Goodbye Fiumicino!
Flying through cloud patches on the short sector meant finding some moderate turbulence, yet it was overall a generally smooth flight, with the beverage service offered by the professional crew with the usual flair and a smile.
All too soon, at 22:03 descent started and quickly the lights of the Sardinian coastline appeared through the darkness, shortly afterward followed by the hills surrounding the airport and then, at 22:18 wheels touched for a final time Sardinian soil.
After taxiing, instead of heading to the usual terminal loading bridge, we manoeuvred on the tarmac finally stopping at a remote parking stand at the foot of the ATC tower.
Unfortunately, no water cannon salute for Echo Sierra though, which was a few minutes later joined by flight IG1208 operated by I-SMET, which due to a last-minute delay by more than half an hour unexpectedly became the real last Meridiana MD-80 scheduled arrival.
Passengers having disembarked, it was time to talk again a little bit with the crew, taking some more pictures to attest the memorable moment, and pat a final time “Echo Sierra”, poised in the coming months to join the ranks of a Scandinavian leisure operator.
On the morning of November 1st, 2017, the four MD-80s were all parked on the tarmac at OLB, their daily flying duties plying the routes to Bologna, Milan Linate, Naples, Rome, Turin and Verona having been taken over by the Boeing 737-800s of Air Italy – possibly in anticipation of the B737 MAX8s that are now rumoured to potentially arrive in the coming months.
Farewell good old friend MD-82, and heartfelt thanks to you and your stablemates for all that you represented to me and my ex-colleagues at Meridiana, in the air and on the ground: a good job which lasted for a quarter of a century, and the fulfillment of a neverending passion. We won’t forget you although, like in this case, memories can sometimes be bittersweet.
|MD82||I-SMEB||Arcipelago della Maddalena|
|MD82||I-SMEL||Parco di Gaiola|
|MD82||I-SMEM||Penisola del Sinis|
|MD82||I-SMET||Miramare nel Golfo di Trieste|
|MD82||I-SMEV||Isole di Ventotene e Santo Stefano|
|MD82||I-SMEZ||Secche di Tor Paterno|
|MD83/82||EI-CNR||Parco di Baia|
|MD82||EI-CRE||Tavolara – Punta Coda Cavallo|