Nobody wanted it. And when they got it, they didn’t love it much. They only tolerated it.
It’s maker literally had to give it away at a below-cost price, and agree to take 100 percent of the risk in the deal, just to get somebody to “test drive” it.
Now that unwanted, never-really-appreciated airplane – the McDonnel Douglas MD-80 – is being put out to pasture by the major airline whose dramatic growth to the top of the global aviation industry it enabled.
Last Tuesday American Airlines crews flew 20 of the twin-jets to Roswell, N.M., home of goofy flying saucer and alien invader stories and one of the world’s largest aircraft “boneyards.” Those planes, like a couple hundred other American MD-80s now parked, sans engines, at the airport at Roswell International Air Center arrived there on a one-way ticket. They’ll be stripped of usable and valuable parts. Their hulls will sit in the dry air of high dessert waiting until some small foreign airline, nondescript cargo carrier, or entrepreneur with a hair-brained idea buys them. Or, more likely, they’ll be scrapped and their metal, worth maybe $10,000, will be recycled.
Within the next 28 months all 60 or so MD-80s remaining in American’s fleet will join those MD-80s already in Roswell. The small number of MD-80s still being flown by other U.S. carriers, no doubt, soon will follow.
Commercial aircraft almost always reach their end this way; sitting in some remote, arid field waiting for a trip through the crusher. Only a handful of any particular type ever survive as museum pieces, training tools, roadside diners, or the occasional home for some eccentric.
And nearly always, the millions of people who flew billions of passenger miles on those old planes say “good riddance,” if they give those planes’ demise any thought at all.
Certainly there was little to love about the MD-80. They weren’t particularly comfy (though what planes are?). They were – are – loud. They lack the latest and coolest passenger service systems and touches. And, as domestic hub-feeders that made four or five roundtrips a day for 25 to 30 years each, they have lots of rattles and battle scars.
But there’s something remarkable about the dowdy old MD-80 being phased out
It saved an airline and an aircraft manufacturer. And it changed the way every one of us flies today.
In 1982 McDonnell Douglas had sold exactly zero MD-80s to U.S. airlines of any size or importance. And the company’s commercial division – the legendary old Douglas Aircraft Corporation, acquired in 1967 by McDonnell, a military jet maker – was in deep trouble. Its production line for the DC-10 mid-size wide body jet was slowing to a trickle. Production of the 110-passenger DC-9 – of which the MD-80 was a modernized and stretched derivative – had ceased years earlier. If the company did not soon find a major U.S. carrier to buy the MD-80, the Douglas half of the house would fail, potentially dragging down the McDonnell side with it.
Based on existing fleet needs and financial ability to pay for planes, only one U.S. airline was a real candidate to buy the MD-80: American. But American, which only recently had restructured its operations around a new concept called a “hub” at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and still was in the planning stages for what would become its Chicago O’Hare Airport hub, was determined not to add a single new plane to its ancient fleet until it won huge cost savings in new deals with its labor unions.
But Jim Worsham, executive vice president and chief salesman at McDonnell Douglas’s commercial aircraft division, was desperate. So he went to American’s then-new and aggressive President, Robert Crandall, to see if he could talk the airline’s No. 2 executive and driving force into some kind of deal that could benefit both companies.
Crandall, didn’t want the planes. He and American already had studied the MD-80 and rejected it. Besides, he was determined not to grow American’s fleet, or to invest in new planes until he got big labor cost savings. Yet Crandall also wanted to keep McDonnell Douglas in the jetliner-making business lest American, like other airlines, become dependent on the then-dominant Boeing or the new and still unproven kid in the industry, Airbus Industries.
The deal Crandall and Worsham cut was unique. There’s never been another like it – before, or since.
McDonnell Douglas essentially rented American 20 MD-80s for five years. At the end of the deal American could walk away from the planes and owe nothing. And if it wanted to dump the planes even sooner, the penalty for doing so would be tiny – roughly equal to one month’s lease payment. Financial terms, while never actually released, were remarkably favorable to American. It paid monthly lease payments based on an assumed purchase price of $17 million per plane (or about $42.4 million in 2016 dollars). At the time McDonnell Douglas was selling a few MD-80s to foreign carriers for around $23 million each (about $57.4 million in today’s dollars).
Still Crandall was careful to keep American’s unions from getting the idea that the airline was going to start growing again even if it didn’t get the new contracts that management wanted (it had had hundreds of pilots and thousands of other employees on furlough for several years). Every time a two-pilot MD-80 joined the fleet he had a three-pilot Boeing 727 retired.
Labor got the message, and within months of that unusual “walk away lease” deal with McDonnell Douglas, American’s pilots, mechanics and ground workers, and flight attendants had agreed to radical two-tier labor deals. That allowed American to begin hiring new employees at significantly lower pay rates while employees already on board took no pay cuts. To make the economics of that deal work American absolutely HAD to grow. And it had to do so rapidly in order to bring down its unit labor costs. That in turn required the airline to dream up lots new ways to attract lots more passengers. American invented or refined frequent flier programs, advance-purchase discount fare and VIP airport clubs in that era. Most importantly it developed today’s complex fare pricing scheme designed to attract the most price sensitive customers to fill millions of airplane seats without letting business travelers and others with a more urgent need to fly do so for less than they would be willing to pay. That powered the high frequency pattern of air service we all take for granted today.
Within eight years American was flying more than 200 MD-80s and turning the U.S. industry upside down with its powerful hub-and-spoke operation. The operation was heavily dependent on several thousand daily MD-80 flights between smaller cities and its big hubs. In the process American went from struggling, shrinking, financially handicapped also-ran to the pinnacle of the industry. It eventually operated more than 250 MD-80s, the largest such fleet in the world. And after its 2001 acquisition of TWA American’s MD-80 fleet swelled to around 380 – about 40 percent of the airline’s entire fleet.
Arguably, without the MD-80, acquired on such ridiculously favorable terms, American would not have been able to convince its unionized employees to accept the so-called “B-scale” contracts that not only allowed, but required the airline to grow. Not even the similarly-sized Boeing 737 could have done that because Boeing was never so desperate as to sell 737s at such a ridiculously low price as McDonnell Douglas sold MD-80s to American
Like all Douglas-designed planes, the MD-80 was built like a flying tank: sturdy, strong and durable, but nothing special in terms of passenger experience. Yes, it had fewer middle seats than the 737 or Airbus’s comparable A320 (because it had only two seats on one side of the aisle and three seats on the other side). But it was longer, and therefore more difficult to board and deboard (especially for those seated in the back). There was nothing cutting edge about the passenger compartments, and American never went beyond applying occasional interior facelifts.
Then, as the global fleet of MD-80s aged and neared the end of their useful lives, carriers – American first among them – stopped investing in them. Modern inflight entertainment systems never made it on to many, if any, MD-80s. They rattled and creaked more than ever. Their cabin environment systems, never great to begin with, struggled to keep the air fresh and at the right temperature. Mechanical issues mounted, making them increasingly unreliable and expensive to operate. Their engines originally were touted as being quiet enough to meet the first set of tougher noise standards issued in the late 1970s. But they always seemed louder than other planes’ engines because they are mounted on the side of the fuselage, next to the back few rows of windows whereas most other commercial jets have under-wing engines. Nowadays, by comparison with the more modern, and significantly quieter engines that began entering service about 15 years ago, those mounted on the MD-80s still in service seem deafeningly loud, even to those seated near the front.
Still, the originally unwanted, and mostly unloved MD-80 arguably saved two companies – American and McDonnell Douglas, though the aircraft maker eventually was bought by rival Boeing in 1997.
In the piloting world there’s a euphemism used when a fellow pilot passes away. He – or increasingly, she – is said to have, “flown west,” like a cowboy who rode solitarily off into the west at the end of an old western movie. It’s a line from an old poem about pilots. Well, hundreds of MD-80s have flown west in the last few years, and the mere dozens still operating will be flying west over the next few years until there are none left. It’s not sad. It’s time.
But because of the critical role they played in transforming the U.S. – and global – aviation industry, plus the way we all travel today, their flying west is worth noting.
Nobody wanted it. And when they got it, they didn’t love it much. They only tolerated it.