Bah Humbug: The American Airlines MD80 is Retiring This Week, Should We Even Miss It?

Andy Luten put together a great tribute video to the retiring American Airlines MD80.

Andy makes the case for why the MD80 was special. There will be many who strike a similar chord. I am going to respectfully disagree.

The American Airlines MD80 Retirement Will Be a Big Media Story

You’re going to see a lot about the American Airlines MD80 this week. Between the plane operating its final commercial flight for American on Wednesday — flight AA80 — and the airline running a ferry flight to the desert with a plane full of media on board, this is a major ‘event’.

American Airlines even invited me onto this sendoff to Roswell, New Mexico. That’s how far down they’re pushing to get coverage for the event. If there’s such a thing as persona non grata at American Airlines surely that’s me.

american airlines md80 final flight boarding pass

The MD80’s Proud History Has Passed

I didn’t take the trip (although if they’d offered an Area 51 flyover that’d been tempting). The truth is that to me the MD80 was just an old plane. Like all other old aircraft it’s eventually replaced. Few of us will actually miss the aircraft itself.

The MD80 first entered commercial service in 1980. It was McDonnell Douglas’ stretched version of the DC-9. After Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997 its successors became the Boeing 717.

American Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to order the plane, and the world’s largest operator of the variant. At one point the American Airlines MD80 fleet included 360 aircraft. That’s a full 30% of the total ever produced.

Originally dubbed the DC-9-80 or DC-9 Super 80, the aircraft is distinct with turbofan engines mounted at the rear of the aircraft and a T-tail.

However the plane’s JT8D engines burn a lot more fuel than more modern aircraft. That means higher operating costs.

Only Two Things Were Good About the American Airlines MD80

In recent times the American Airlines MD80 really had just two things going for it,

  • 2×3 seating in economy meant that only one passenger per row had a middle seat
  • Plenty of legroom in first class. Since the plane was slated for retirement American never densified it as much as what they’re doing to their Boeing 737-800s (“Oasis“).

american airlines md80 seat map

American’s MD80s Were Past Their Prime

There was a lot that wasn’t great flying the MD80, too. Knowing these aircraft were destined for retirement American didn’t invest in high speed internet. They were still providing early generation Gogo air to ground internet. The planes weren’t even updated with latest generation air to ground technology.

gogo air to ground speed test

The American Airlines MD80 fleet had no seat back entertainment screens. Even American’s older generation 737-800s had drop down video screens to show movies. MD80s lacked drop down screens as well.

The MD80s had become maintenance prone and less reliable than the rest of the fleet. After this summer that’s saying something. According to data from Air Insight, American’s MD80 fleet had average delays that were about one-third longer than for Boeing, Airbus, or Embraer aircraft in each of the last three years.

American’s MD80s Are Leaving, But the Trademarks of the Plane Will Be Around For Some Time

American didn’t keep pilots current on the aircraft. Some were coming due for significant maintenance. So despite the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX the airline chose not to extend the life of the MD80s to make up for lost flying.

It seems odd to me that American Airlines is promoting such nostalgia for the plane. The MD80’s primary benefit is that management never installed their new standard, less comfortable interiors. It’s as though they’re saying goodbye to a time when both domestic coach and first class were more civilized.

Delta still operates over 60 later-generation MD88s and over 30 MD90s, though these are slated for retirement. However since Delta, Hawaiian, QantasLink and Volotea fly the Boeing 717 we’ll still see the trademark rear-mounted engines and T-tail for some time to come.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I will miss the MD-80s dearly. They were old but had comfortable seats and was super quiet towards the front end of the aircraft

  2. In my h. opinion the rear exit as well as the 2/3 seating were the main advantages. yes, seeing the shock on passengers faces when they realized they were sitting 26 inches from that noisy engine.
    In Italy, in recent decades, it was quite common to have deplaning and walking to the terminal. The 80 series made it faster, no waiting for outside help.

  3. I flew many hundreds of segments on mad dogs. I always liked that airplane, because of the 2+3 seating. It was great to get in the two row when traveling with my wife. Also the seats were big and comfortable, especially in first class.

  4. It’s not the fault of the aircraft that it wasn’t upgraded by the airlines/operators with the latest IFE or WiFi. The MD-80 was very successful for its time/era, much like the 747 was. Obviously, time and technology has passed them by, which is why they are being retired.

    But to me, the MD-80 series was a sleek, elegant design for its era, and I’ll wax nostalgic when they’re all gone.

  5. Am I missing the point as to why the image at DFW is showing Regional Jets instead of an MD-80?

    I will miss them. I actually found the MD-80 to be very comfortable. I have a lot of good memories over the years on that bird. Call me nostalgic and sentimental…they are to me symbolic of the airline that American once was.

  6. By the by…who remembers the golden years (or wasteful years!) when American would not wait for a push back at the gate on the MD-80 but use their reverse thrust to back out.

  7. I saw this bird on routes that would otherwise be served by an RJ. For 55 minute jumps out of DFW, it was a comfortable ride. My understanding is that the pilots loved it too.

    It’s hard to argue that it isn’t past its prime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t retired as a plane that frequent flyers will miss.

  8. Everyone anyone near the Palm Springs Airport flight paths will be ecstatic. Those things were loud, and you could tell time by their departure (that is, when they departed on time).

  9. Gary, I totally agree. I never loved the MD-80, so maybe I am biased. I do understand nostalgia is subjective but,

    @Luke Vader
    Sorry, I get that the seats were more comfortable that current models, but are you really suggesting that the MD-80 is more iconic, or even equally as iconic, as the 747?

    One of these types opened the planet to a new generation of travellers, and permanently changed the way we fly. Its silhouette arguably evokes all the romance of longhaul travel. The other was a stretched derivative of only the third t-tail narrowbody shorthaul type to be produced, and that’s about all there was to recommend it…

  10. Good riddance to the “Trash 80”. While pilots and some people may have loved to fly it, it was a Douglas product built on the cheap with numerous flawed basic engineered systems (door latch mechanisms, hydraulic systems, etc.) There was a reason McD couldn’t sell planes and had to be acquired by Boeing. This plane was one of them IMHO. I hated flying them for anything more than a half hour flight.

  11. Well where to start. First I guess is I made my living working on this fleet for 33 years. 6 yrs at Reno Air brings back many memories. Now a days most new mechanics don’t know how to trouble shoot with out a computer fault code. Ahh the days of manual Airplanes are over. Also I will be working on the 80 that will go to Ord tomorrow morning. Poor Gary he only knows about flying on aircraft a being catered to. So it’s nice to see the other side of the coin. I could go on an on. So to the many of you with fond and some bad memories of the MD80 it’s and end to a long and memorable era. Cya at Dfw.

  12. As good a business-oriented CEO Robert Crandall was at AA, his worst operational decision was not eliminating olives from salads, but rather, running the MDs between ORD-LAX. This aircraft type was not ideal on true long hauls; frankly, anything over 2 hours.

  13. Not a fan of the MD-80 as a passenger, but it’s pretty impressive that a narrow body design that was introduced in 1980 is just now being retired today. I wonder how much of the efficiency problems are solely due to technological advancements in engines, or due to the outdated airframe. I think the unique design of engines mounted on the rear might have prolonged it’s life, as though it might have created balance/stability issues a la the max, having an uninterrupted airfoil probably aided the aerodynamics.

  14. ***SADLY, they are ‘evicted’ from the fleet. I really will miss the M80’s. Usually, I sat on the 2-seat side, and normally they gave me row 29-32 or something like that, where it seemed more quiet, away from most pax, and near or behind the galley where you had row 32-34 on the 2-seat side. I think they took a few from TWA when they bought out them and even had the TWA reverse paint job M80 where TWA bought it from B-WEE (BWIA) back in the mid 90’s. It was a ‘work-horse’ to replace the 727’s, but now there’s other newer aircraft that replaced the M80’s. Guess it will join the 727’s and others. The 727’s where a great aircraft for its time, and definitely we can say so was the M80’s, and so we say “FAREWELL”.!!

  15. Working out of St. Louis and traveling for work, I flew a lot of miles on TWA MD-80s. These planes were smooth, handled bad weather extremely well and U loved sitting on the 2 seat side in coach. After moving to MSP in 2000, it wasn’t until DL and NWA merged that I enjoyed MD-80 series service again and even the MD-90 (although I did fly those awful refit DC-9s of NWA). The Mad Dog (along with the 727 and DC-9) we the bread and butter of my work and leisure travel for decades. Now it A320s and 737s, but I will always have fond memories of MD-80 TWA Comfort Class between St. Louis and point across the US and the Caribbean.
    Enjoy Retirement Mad Dogs, you’ve earned the rest! I will join you in 10 more years!

  16. It was originally dubbed DC-9-80. (Not “DC-9-30”)

    The first class seats were really nice with enormous adjustable headrests. The legacy AA S80’s main cabin had comfy Recaro seats with multi-way adjustable headrests. But those main cabin Recaros went away as the fleet was drawn down and the TWA 80’s became the mainstay of the remaining fleet.

  17. I have the same question as @Russell. I mostly think of these as the old AA planes that were still wearing the old polished aluminium livery.

  18. It’s the end of an era. Gary doesn’t appreciate the fact this airplane was a major piece of equipment for AA for 36 years. By the way Gary, Roswell isn’t in Nevada.

  19. @michael, yes I wondered the same about the location but was thinking being he thought the flights would be diverted to Nevada to avoid the hurricane Donald warned for Alabama.

    This plane has a long storied history and not everyone will appreciate its end of service. However our favorite blogger would have taken a positive perspective on it If it was Delta’s event.

  20. Gary, I am questioning at whole your real knowledge of these aircraft beyond the perfunctory of occasional passenger experience. Your opinions and copy (it’s a blog so I guess somewhat entitled) are far from reality.

    1. It’s an MD-80 and not a renamed DC-9-30 as stated earlier. (Now fixed.)
    2. You used pictures of similar tail mounted CRJ 700/900’s as part of the article. (Now fixed)

    Do you actually know what an MD-80 even looks like? Or its service in the evolution (or devolution) of flying today

    The plane was perfectly fine and served well the flying public for decades. It was comfortable, had 2-3 seating that everyone is learning now is far preferred (i.e. A-220) and, was, for the time built, quiet and reliable. Instead of looking like you don’t even know what the aircraft looks like how about giving it a bit of credit for what it did over the past nearly 40 years.

    1. Was very quiet for the time. Towards the front at least!!
    2. Made even more available the development of hub and spoke as it connected cities that would otherwise not be feasible. MD-80 was the forerunner to Regional Jets.
    3. Is the last plane of its kind still operated by U.S. carriers that pilots actually “fly.” “Boeing builds airplanes, Douglas builds character.”

    Quite frankly you were a fool to turn down that final flight from AA and not learn a bit more of the legacy of what this aircraft offered. It’s not a 747 historically, sure. But it is in many ways the one singular aircraft that made American into the airline it is. What that is today I have no idea but the place of the MD-80 in history is deserved.

  21. @Stuart ” It’s an MD-80 and not a renamed DC-9-30 as stated earlier. (Now fixed.)”

    Yes, I made a typo and wrote DC-9-30 vs DC-9-80 and corrected the typo.

  22. The MD-80 has become a classic and I view it favorably for its sleek lines and swift rise on takeoff up into the skies like the actual birds it resembled. The 2/3 searing was amazingly comfortable. I realize it’s past it’s time and with evolution it’s been supplanted. But in terms of sheer beauty and comfort it certainly surpassed the 737 suite of aircraft.

  23. @ Gary. I seem to remember the original name of the MD-80 to be the DC-9 Super 80. Could be wrong about that as it was way back in 1981 when I went through training on it.
    And are you sure about AA being the first US airline customer. I’ d say it was MuseAir (N830MC & 831MC). They, MuseAir, were the nations first non-smoking airline with leather seats and outstanding FA’s. At 6 a.m. the airplane smelled of leather and not like beer and a full ashtray.

  24. Pacific Southwest Airlines was one of the first to buy the MD80. it was a fantastic airplane. Our aircraft had the HUD ,Heads Up Display. They told us not to use it. You Have to be kidding? I completed numerous flights in really bad weather, snow storms etc. by using the HUD. I have numerous type ratings but flying the MD80 was a true pleasure. Nailing a landing in really low visibility was a real “Catch our Smile” PSA.


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