Why is the “Mad Dog” MD-80 still barking?
On September 4, 2019, American Airlines 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 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 – 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 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, 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, McDonnell Douglas used every trick in the book.
American Airlines 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 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 would operate 20 MD-80’s and, if not satisfied with the aircraft, could return the Mad Dogs to McDonnell Douglas without any fee.
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