MIAMI — Mention the words “McDonnell Douglas MD-11” to airline geeks, passengers, pilots, and airline executives and you’re likely to elicit many different reactions for this successor to the venerable Douglas DC-10 is a controversial airplane: Passengers often found the plane’s cabin very spacious and silky smooth ride very comfortable. Airline geeks like myself still praise the sexy aggressive Tri-Jet’s stance and unique aesthetic that stands out against the sea of anonymous looking twins. Pilots appreciate its often docile flying characteristics in cruise, powerful performance, advanced avionics (for the time), and commanding flight deck. On the other hand, they curse its reliability and high center of gravity that makes it a difficult aircraft during take-off and landing. Airline executives, except for a few cargo operators who appreciate its lift capacity and inexpensive second-hand price, can generally find very little positive to say about McDonnell Douglas’ final wide-body. From the time the MD-11 first entered service in 1990 with Finnair, the aircraft bedeviled its owners with excessive fuel burn, operating range penalties, and reliability issues especially with its flight control systems. Some of these design flaws have resulted in 8 hull-loss accidents with 235 fatalities. Many believe the MD-11, like the DC-10, to be a cursed aircraft. Beyond that, the Tri-jet came to market in an era where ETOPS equipped twins like the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 were taking over routes that had once been the domain of the first generation tri-jets like the DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and the quad-engine Boeing 747. Besides that, the 777 was just right around the corner. What can’t be disputed by anyone is that the MD-11 was unquestionably a commercial failure, and one that played a significant part in the end of McDonnell Douglas as a stand-alone concern which led to the 1997 merger with Boeing. Singapore Airlines cancelled their entire 20 aircraft order before ever taking delivery. McDonnell Douglas immediately embarked on a Performance Improvement Package, but it was too late. Only 200 MD-11s were ever built over its very brief 11-year production run, with only 138 passenger examples delivered. McDonnell Douglas had forecast a production run of well over 300 aircraft, just to break even. Major MD-11 operators American Airlines, Delta, Swissair, and Japan operated these Long-Beach built airliners for less than 10 years before they begun to sell them off, mainly as freighters. By the end of the 2000s, this less than 20 year-old airliner was only flying scheduled passenger service for KLM, Martinair, and Finnair with the rest consigned to freighter duty with cargo carriers such as Fed-Ex, UPS, and Lufthansa Cargo and a few passenger charter operators such as World Airways. My last trip on an MD-11 was a Delta LAX-ATL rotation nearly 10 years ago to the day of this trip.
By December 2012 KLM was the last airline in the world still flying the MD-11 in scheduled passenger service. The fleet had been paired back from its peak of 10 down to a final 6, with retirement of the type scheduled for 2013-14 or perhaps earlier. With a diminishing market, KLM’s MD-11s are being turned into “Heineken Cans” in the scrap-yard of Victorville, California. In North America, only Montreal continues to be a year-round destination for the MD-11 as KLM has shifted San Francisco, Atlanta, LA, and Vancouver to more modern Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s. MD-11s can be seen plying the skies for the time being to destinations like Havana, Tehran, Kilimanjaro, and Dubai. Having no plans to visit Iran, Africa, or Cuba anytime soon, my last opportunity to fly the MD-11 would be on a return flight from Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) to my home-base in Miami via Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL). This “mission” would require a change in planes, an overnight stay, and be out of the way, but it would be a perfect finishing touch on a wonderful aviation year that had included among things inaugurals on the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Given that my first leg of the trip was on a Lufthansa Airbus A380, this would add a certain irony to the whole journey. Besides, I am an unabashed fan of the ultimate McDonnell Douglas “Three-Holer”.
My traveling modus operandi is to get to airports early to photograph and plane-spot, so as usual I arrived a couple of hours before departure. I checked in at KLM’s SkyTeam Priority World Business Class check-in at AMS Departures Hall 2 where there was no wait. After a quick passport check and unusually no security screening, I was on my way to 1 of the 2 massive KLM Crown Lounges at AMS after passing through Schiphol’s famed Shopping Plaza which attracts many locals not even flying. The Crown Lounge has a very functional, sleek design that like KLM is not at all ostentatious. Cold cuts, cookies, and a full offering of spirits were on offer. Though nice, the lounge actually furthered my long-harbored perception of KLM as efficient, reliable, comfortable, though not necessarily luxurious or innovative airline when it comes to the passenger experience.
After a quick pit-stop at the Crown Lounge, I headed to the seamless passport control / immigration on Schiphol’s International non- Schnegen countries E Pier. Unusually once past immigration, there is no immediate security checkpoint. The security screening is actually on each gate itself that in this case is Gate E-3. I gaze at today’s “Magic Carpet Ride”: KLM MD-11 PH-KCD “Florence Nightingale”, which was delivered in August 1994. An interesting aside is that the KLM MD-11 fleet is named after women who have made important contributions throughout history. The gate opens and the security screening begins about 15 minutes prior to boarding. Anxious to pre-board the aircraft for photography and a brief chat with Captain De Vet, I am first in line.
The crew seem mildly surprised that I am an enthusiast seeking out this particular aircraft but Captain De Vet who has been flying for KLM since 1981 and who will retired on this aircraft shares my enthusiasm for the type. His only complaint is that there are fewer and fewer places for him to fly it to. The Captain allows a quick visit to the very spacious and, for a 25 year old design, surprisingly modern flight deck. When I am introduced to the First Officer, I ask where the relief pilot is. They explain to me that this being a relatively quick 7:18 daylight flight, there are only 2 pilots onboard which surprises me. A 3rd pilot is present on the ultra-long haul flights. I learn that the Honeywell Avionics suite is shared with the short-haul MD-95 (Boeing 717) and I make a joke that the crew is cross-qualified to fly both which elicits a laugh or two.
With departure time nearing and not wanting to overstay my welcome, I leave the “front office” and meet another 30 year KLM veteran: the delightful Chief Purser Saskia Goedart. She shows me some unique aspects of the MD-11. Behind the flight deck in front of the forward cabin are 4 “Comfort Seats” that look like supersized jump seats in an area they call The Hen House. There is no crew rest loft or bunks on the MD-11 so flight attendants often rest here. I opine that these are very comfortable jump seats but not so great for napping. I then am shown the unique Pursor’s Workstation (PSW), similar to the kind I have seen on a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental. The PSW has all the typical cabin lighting control systems, IFE master control, storage, but also has its own desk and chair, even its own window which seems unusual. Ms Goedart coordinates an efficient cabin crew of ten: 3 flight attendants in the World Business Class Cabins and 7 in the Economy and Economy Comfort Cabins. As inviting as her desk is, the very busy Chief Purser spends very little time at her desk throughout the flight.
I dropped my carry-on luggage at my seat, 6A, in the World Business Cabin to do a quick tour of the rest of the airplane before general boarding commenced. KLM’s MD-11s have 4 sections with 3 cabins: 2 World Business Class Cabins with 24 angled-flat seats boasting a very generous 60” pitch, 20” width, and 150 degree recline. They are arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration in the front cabin and 2-3-2 configuration in the 2nd cabin.
In simpatico with other SkyTeam partners such as Delta and Air France, KLM has introduced a Economy Comfort Class. These 38 seats with 35” width and 17.5” pitch are located in their own intimate 3-3-3 cabin. Unlike Virgin, but more like British Airways, Economy Confort stops short of being a full premium economy product as it has the same meals, check-in, and baggage allowances of economy. Further back in Economy Class, the wide cabin of the MD-11 (less than a foot narrower than a Boeing 777) really becomes apparent. There are 223 seats in 1 large cabin with 31” pitch and 17.5” width in a 3-3-3 configuration but it all somehow seems roomier than on other aircraft such as the narrower Airbus A330. All seats have seatback IFE’s which is a nice amenity in a plane of this vintage.
With general boarding in progress, I returned to my World Business Cabin seat. KLM, along with partner Northwest were among the first carriers to replace First Class with a Business Class way back in 1993. On the MD-11, this is obviously an older product with a retro 1990s feel but is still very comfortable and boasts an outstanding in-flight entertainment system IFE. The World Business Class seats feature a 10.4-inch TV monitor with full AVOD (Audio Video on Demand), email/text messaging, a massage function and laptop power ports. KLM is overhauling their long-haul flagship product with full flat seats in 2013 but obviously the MD-11s won’t be included in these plans. As this was a daytime flight, I wasn’t bothered by the look and feel of the seats in the least. In fact their retro feel enhanced the whole time warp MD-11 experience. These seats as comfortable as they are fall short in two basic areas of ergonomics: My arm often activated the seat functions on the armrest. This reportedly common problem became so annoying that I had to raise the armrest out of the way. The storage in front was also insufficient for my laptop. Another time-warp feature is the non-standard 3-prong headphones. Somehow, an old Pearl Jam song just sounded more authentic on these relics.
During pre-board, we were offered the obligatory champagne, orange juice, or water but in true Dutch style, Heineken’s were also on the bill. World Business was full, but economy was two-thirds empty so with boarding completed ahead of schedule, the doors were closed and flight 671 blocked away from the gate 3three minutes early at 3:17pm. It was showtime! The three GE CF6-80C2D1F fired up one-by-one and that powerful rumble began as we throttled in fits and starts over to the distant AMS runway 24. We began our powerful take-off roll at 3:46pm to a symphony of bellowing thrust. This was an cacophonous adrenaline rush, unlike the whisper-quiet third generation widebody engines like the GEnx. V1 came at 148 knots, Vr at 158 knots with the wheels leaving terra firma at 165 knots. Surprisingly, we leisurely used a little over 10,000 feet (3,250 meters) of the 11,483 feet (3,500 meters) of asphalt to become airborne. Further “tales of the tape” include a gross takeoff weight of 234 tons, well below the maximum of 280 tons, including 136,000 pounds (62,000kg) of fuel. Perhaps this long de-rated take-off roll was a deliberate attempt to keep the aircraft engines running well below take-off thrust. Yes, I was surprised at its length and time too! We climbed quickly to our initial cruise altitude of 35,000 feet and ground speed of 527 mph. We would eventually step up to a final cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. Unusually there were no in-flight announcements from the flight deck. Our 7:18 flight time would track over the UK Midlands, central Ireland, over the North Atlantic just south of Iceland and Greenland, coming ashore over Newfoundland and Labrador; and finally into Quebec. As we reached cruise, I noticed the unusual and trademark slight nose-up attitude that the MD-11 flies at. This only endured the aggressive MD-11 to me, but flight attendants probably don’t appreciate pushing heavy trolleys up this airborne incline.
I would’ve flown any airline to fly the MD-11 today, but KLM’s service is where the surprises really began. Again, my expectations were more akin to their old partner, the utilitarian Northwest in-flight experience…was I about to be proved wrong! Less than 10 minutes in the air we were being offered hot towels, roasted nuts, and an impressive selection of adult beverages: Champagne Brut Billecart-Salmon; KLM’s special red wine, A 2012 Brazin Old Vine Zin; A 2011 De Kleine Schorre 2011 white wine from Zeeland in the Netherlands; Breedeweelde Special Late Harvest 2012 from Slanghoek, South Africa; A 2010 Casa Silva, Carmenere Cuvee Colchagua 2010 red wine and a vast list of spirits.
KLM introduced a new menu on December 1st from Dutch Chef Robert Kranenborg. He is the head chef at Amber restaurant at the 2 Michelin Stars Landmark Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental Hotel. An hour into the flight, it was our opportunity to sample the fruits of Chef Kranenborg‘s labors beginning with a splendid appetizer of Smoked Salmon with Hollandaise Mousse, capers and shallots served with cucumber soup (a salad) and sour dough bread. I was immediately impressed by the China and flatware that usually goes unnoticed at least by me.
The friendly, but not overly formal crew seemed to have a sixth sense. Unobtrusive when you wanted to be left to your own devices and suddenly appearing magically when it was you desired something as if they almost knew before you knew. Thirty minutes later, I desired the main course and when I looked up 3 gastronomic surprises awaited my choice: Winter Casserole with Volwaard chicken with new potatoes, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts; Venison Stew with blueberries and Brussels sprouts; and Curried Cod in cocoanut lime juice, accompanied by jasmine rice, and Asian-style vegetables. I chose the latter and found it one of the most delicious meals I have experienced on an airline, and of course there was that splendid China again.
Given the long pause between appetizer and entrée, I found it a bit strange that desert and cheese were offered only about 20 minutes later after the main was served. We were lavished with a lovely trolley with a Dark Chocolate Praline; Mango and Jasmine Mouse; fresh fruit; an assortment of cheese and crackers and a pouring of a Taylor’s 2005 Portugal and Croft Pink Port. Given all the indulgence, I was afraid I was fast becoming Henry the VIII. The after-desert chocolate and buffet of snacks did little to help my cause…”willpower be damned”. Oh, and the buffet set-up in the galley didn’t help “curb my caloric enthusiasm”.
With the meal service concluded, a nice light chop lulled many of the passengers to sleep. As is my flight-review tradition, this was the time to put the IFE through its paces. My expectations were low given the diminished place of the MD-11 in KLM’s fleet and some of the reviews I had read. As with the flair of the service, I was pleasantly surprised. The full AVOD system is chock full of movies, music, games, in-flight moving map, destination videos, and countless TV channels. I found the system’s selection almost up to the Panasonic X2 standards of the A380 I flew over on. There were no special video cameras on display, but the IFE did its job perfectly where the A380 malfunctioned in a few key areas.
Before I knew it, this “90’s Flashback Flight” was coming to an end. With 1 hour and 2 minutes to go, KLM began the “light” 2nd meal service with hot towels. After only 3 hours since my last meal, I was certainly famished so KLM obliged with a choice of: Veal with tuna sauces, asparagus, pine nuts, and roasted peppers; a Dutch croquette roll of deep-fried beef ragout in bread roll; or cheese and red onion chutney pie with a Dutch waffle mousse with caramel sauce for desert. I am usually not a heavy eater flying but my appetite meant this MD-11 Heavy might be landing a little “heavier”.
The climax of every KLM long-haul flight is the traditional gifting of the very collectible Delft Blue Canal Houses filled with Jenever liquor to premium class passengers. This tradition dates back to 1952 when some were ashtrays. As of late 2012, there are 93 different houses with an additional house added every year on the anniversary of KLM’s founding on October 7th. Each are numbered and represent the number of years KLM, the world’s oldest airline flying under its original name, has been in operation. Each year, a new house receives the next sequential number. All houses are reproductions of historic houses in Holland.
At 4:31pm local time, we began our descent into a cold, drizzly Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. Given the MD-11s penchant for being a difficult plane to land and the relatively high angle of attack to prevent stalling, I highly anticipated this landing. Twenty-three minutes after departing from 38,000 feet Captain De Vet executed a perfect “grease job” onto YUL’s runway 6L. We had flown 4,681 miles in 7 hours and 20 minutes, just 2 minutes longer than planned.
After a short taxi to the gate, we arrived back in the year 2012. As is obvious in the article, KLM greatly exceeded my expectations. For this, I was very happy. Leaving the MD-11 though, was bittersweet. Yes, I got to check it off of my AvGeek bucket list, but in doing so I knew this was very likely the last time I would ever set foot aboard this wonderful, albeit quirky aircraft. KLM MD-11 “Florence Nightingale” would unfairly not likely fly to see her twentieth birthday. Despite being a young and still capable aircraft; technology, environmental issues, and the steep of price of fuel meant she was in the twilight of her days. After salvaging her sexy aluminum physique, PH-KCD was most likely headed for a rendezvous with the scrap-man, perhaps unceremoniously recycled into a beer can. I will always toast her with a Heineken.
The full gallery of images from this KLM MD-11 flight can be viewed here.
And enjoy this 12-minute video of a KLM MD-11 flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam.