Why is the “Mad Dog” MD-80 still barking?

Eliyahu Yosef Parypa

On September 4, 2019, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) held a grand ceremony – over 20 of the airline’s cranky and old McDonnell Douglas MD-80 were flown from Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW), St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL), Tulsa International Airport (TUL) and Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Roswell (ROW) where the Mad Dogs are going to rest after loyally serving American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) for over 30 years.

Their current fate is pretty clear – the Super 80s are either going to be sold on, converted to a freighter or scrapped for metal. But back in the 1970s, their fate was hazy – barely anybody wanted the aircraft. McDonnell Douglas was struggling to sell it, apart from scarce orders from European airlines – the manufacturer wanted a firm order from an American carrier before green-lighting the program. While the MD-80 frame was just a stretch of the DC-9, but a new cockpit, avionics, aerodynamics and engine upgrades still cost the company money and with the DC-10 lawsuits, McDonnell Douglas had little room to wiggle in an expensive development campaign into their financials.

Swissair became the launch customer for the Super 80 and introduced it into commercial service in 1980. Just three years later, McDonnell Douglas already contemplated exiting the commercial aircraft business, as the company was not making any strides at all. Nevertheless, persistence and cleverness saved McDonnell Douglas, until Boeing took over its operations in 1997.

So, why the unwanted Mad Dog became the workhorse of many airlines, especially in the United States?


The 1980s was rough for both McDonnell Douglas and American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) – the former was dealing with the reputational damage and numerous lawsuits following DC-10 crashes, while the latter was making an expensive move to establish its hub-to-spoke model in Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) and Chicago O‘Hare International Airport (ORD). American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) did not want the MD-80, but McDonnell Douglas had to make a move, or else the company would face extinction much sooner than 1997.

At first, the reason why only Swissair and Austrian Airlines made a significant enough (15 and 8 aircraft, respectively) orders and no North American airline, apart Pacific Southwest Airlines (LUV) , wanted the MD-80 was that the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) insisted that the MD-80 had to be manned by three pilots. However, the FAA approved that the Super 80 had a minimum crew of a Pilot and Copilot. Even PSA could confirm the order only after dealing with its pilot union, which at the time was not a part of ALPA.

In total, McDonnell Douglas received 109 orders between 1977 and August 1, 1982, according to Boeing’s Orders and Deliveries data. However, a clever sales campaign secured 75 orders between September 1982 and December 1982, essentially kick-starting the Mad Dog, which became McDonnell Douglas’ savior. But the campaign, including a world tour around Asia, Europe and the Middle East, was not a regular one – in order to persuade American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) , McDonnell Douglas used every trick in the book.

American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) was very hesitant to purchase any new aircraft, as it simply could not afford them. The aging Boeing 707 and Boeing 727 fleet put the carrier at a Catch-22 situation – American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) had to replace them to reduce their operating costs, but the exceptionally high operational costs of the two aircraft restricted the airline’s ability to renew its fleet. Nevertheless, McDonnell Douglas put out an offer in 1982 that AA simply could not refuse – essentially, the airline would rent the aircraft. For five years, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) would operate 20 MD-80’s and, if not satisfied with the aircraft, could return the Mad Dogs to McDonnell Douglas without any fee.

If the new aircraft would be disastrous for the operations of the airline, they could also return them at any point in time of the lease period for a “cancellation charge”. McDonnell Douglas set up a safety net for itself – if American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) financial results would improve because of the MD-80, the manufacturer would get a sliver of the profit. In addition, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) could extend the lease for 13 more years. McDonnell Douglas delivered the first MD-80 to the airline on May 4, 1983. With the already fragile Douglas’ financials, the move was an all-in maneuver that had to pay off. But confidence did not turn into arrogance.

The difference was notable immediately – American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) stated that the MD-80 was 37% more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 727-100, the aircraft it is replacing. In addition, the Super 80 added more capacity, because a typical seating of an American Airlines MD-80 was 142 passengers while the outgoing 727s seated 115. The aircraft became American’s savior and McDonnell Douglas secured another major airline customer in the United States, Trans World Airlines (TWA) under very similar “rent” conditions. TWA ordered 15 Mad Dogs in October 1982.

No competition

Time was of the essence for McDonnell Douglas – two years after the manufacturer secured the short-term rent with American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) , Boeing, together with USAir introduced the Boeing 737 Classic family, a direct competitor to the MD-80. However, the 737CL was a tad too late – the same year as it made its first commercial flight, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) committed to the Super 80 with further 67 orders, cementing the MD-80s place as the backbone of AA’s narrow-body fleet for the next 35 years. At one point in time, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) operated almost a third of the total MD-80 frames delivered by McDonnell Douglas – AA sold tickets on 383 Super 80s.

On European soil, Airbus dominated the narrow-body market. However, breaking through in North America was always a struggle for the manufacturer. The two biggest North American operators of the MD-80, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) , were never too keen on the Airbus A320. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) ordered their first A320 with the infamous narrow-body renewal order in 2011, which also set off the Boeing 737 MAX saga. Meanwhile, Delta received their first A320 family aircraft in 2008. Even then, the airline did not originally order them – following the bankruptcy of Northwest Airlines, Delta and Northwest merged, with the former taking over Northwest’s fleet, including 69 Airbus A320 aircraft.

But great timing from McDonnell Douglass, Boeing‘s lateness and airlines not being confident in Airbus were not the only reasons why the MD-80 became an essential workhorse. The aircraft was like a Volvo in the sky – reliable and sturdy, it could work for days on end without causing any issues. For example, a Delta Air Lines MD80, registered N907DL, at 32 years of age, comfortably operates more than 5 flights a day, according to flightradar24.com data.

And while the passenger comfort onboard the aircraft was always questionable, the exceptionally looking Mad Dogs will be missed – especially in the old-school American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) livery. While AA retired their final MD-80s, Delta Air Lines still operates the type, meaning passengers can still catch a flight on one, as the airline plans to retire them in 2020.

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