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Disappearing Act: American Airlines Continues to Phase Out its “Super 80s”


 

MD80

Once the workhorse for American Airlines, the MD80 is in the process of being sent to the glue factory – aka the boneyard.

Much like the 747, which is slowly being phased out of passenger service, the MD-80 is suffering the same fate. Most are headed to the boneyard.

American Airlines made the MD-80 the workhorse of its fleet, with approximately 370 in service at its peak. Manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, the MD-80 made its debut in 1980. At the time, it was popular for use on short and medium routes.

But in less than two more years, American will have removed all of its MD-80s from service.

American placed its first order for MD-80s in 1982. Here’s how the company explained the order in its annual report for 1983: “The operating efficiency of the Super 80 stems from its twin-engine, twin-seat cockpit design. On American’s system, it performs the same missions as a 727 aircraft, which has three engines and requires three cockpit crew members. The Super 80 therefore conserves fuel while enhancing pilot productivity. On a route of 750 miles, the Super 80’s fuel cost per seat mile is 37 percent less than that of a 727-100, while its cockpit crew cost per seat mile is 42 percent less.”

Pilots who have spent a lot of time flying the MD-80 know that the aircraft has one of the best safety records, it’s easy to fly and it’s a hybrid of old-time flying and modern avionics. In particular, the cockpit of an MD-80 has a lot of quirks that helps make the piloting experience unique, including a very unique compass placement.

That workhorse is now too old and eats too much. American Arilines chief executive Doug Parker sums up the reason the airline is phasing out the “Super 80” back in a Dallas Morning News interview in 2014.

“They’ve become obsolete, really,” he said. “There are new aircraft coming in that are more fuel-efficient, and the cost of fuel is so much higher than when those airplanes were purchased. “The economics are much better to bring in a new airplane because you save enough in fuel.”

American has ordered new planes such as the Boeing 737-800 (and MAX) and the AirbusA320 series that will replace its MD-80s. The new planes can carry more passengers and do so more efficiently thanks to fuel efficient engines.

Nearly 2,000 MD-80s were produced, with Boeing taking over from McDonnell Douglas in 1997. A few years after that takeover of production, Boeing halted production of MD-80s to concentrate on the 737 as its short/medium-range aircraft.

In its heyday, the MD-80 played a key role in the growth of American Airlines.

“It was a seminal moment for us back in the 1980s when that deal was made, before I even started with American,” American Airlines chairman Tom Horton said. “It was our last major fleet renewal, and it was the cornerstone of the growth plan under (former American CEO) Bob Crandall at the time.”

Today, American has fewer than 95 in the fleet with a majority of those to be retired this year.

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.