With heavy hearts and fond memories, American Airlines bid farewell to their final McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 series aircraft on Wednesday morning. The aircraft type was long referred to as the “Super 80” by American. The name paid homage to the type’s original marketing designation as the DC-9 Super 80, a super stretched, more fuel efficient version of the original DC-9 family of aircraft. The super stretched DC-8s had been similarly branded by Douglas Aircraft beginning in 1965 with the “Super Sixties.” To this day, the type rating of all MD-80 and Boeing 717 pilots still reads “DC-9”.
For decades, the Super 80 was the workhorse of American Airlines domestic operation. The First MD-82 joined American’s fleet on June 7, 1983. Over time it replaced the Boeing 727s that American had been flying since the mid to late 1960s. The Super 80 also outlived the 737-100/200/300s that we’re inherited from the Air California merger in 1987.
From the mid 1980s until the late 1990s, the Super 80 flew most of the domestic routes that couldn’t support widebody aircraft like the Douglas DC-10, Boeing 757 and 767, and Airbus A300. Only the smaller Fokker F-100 joined it in the mainline ranks in these routes. Over the course of their flying career, 383 Super 80s flew for American Airlines. At its peak, the airline had 360 Super 80s operating simultaneously, or roughly 30% of all MD-80s built. At that peak, Super 80s made up a whopping 49% of American’s fleet.
Of course the fuel efficiency gains the Super 80 brought to American’s fleet wouldn’t always be enough. Even with the improvements in the MD-80’s Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, they were still “low bypass” with a bypass ratio of 1.74:1. To see true efficiency gains, higher bypass engines like those found on the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 families, with a bypass ratio of 5:1 or more, would be needed.
For the first part of the Super 80’s career with American Airlines, the fleet was predominantly made up of MD-82s. However it wasn’t the only model to serve the airline. MD-87s were part of the fleet for a few years after the Air California merger. The MD-83 was also a major part of the fleet. American ordered some MD-83s fresh from the factory, while others were converted MD-82s. Many more of the MD-83s came to American in the TWA merger. At retirement of the type, all but 1 of the final 26 Super 80s we’re ex-TWA MD-83s.
The beginning of the end for the Super 80 occurred on February 7, 1999 with the delivery of American’s first 737-800. While the airline’s orders for the Boeing jets were at times quite aggressive, when you’re replacing as many airplanes as American had Super 80s, it can take quite some time.
Not long after the first 737s began flying for American, the Super 80 ranks actually grew substantially as the airline merged with first Reno Air in 1999 and then TWA in 2001. Reno Air brought several models of MD-80 into American’s fleet Including the MD-81, MD-82, MD-83, MD-87, and MD-90. However within a couple years, only the MD-82s and MD-83s remained flying. The TWA merger brought with it over 100 MD-80s. Most of these were the MD-83, but there was a significant number of MD-82s and a few MD-81s.
On July 20, 2011, the airline placed a massive order for a total of 460 737s and A320 family aircraft. It was the order that launched the 737 Max. It was also the order that marked the beginning of the end for the Super 80.
That brings us to September 4th, and the end of Super 80 operations at American. It’s the last of the round gauge DC-9s; the MD-88s, MD-90s, and 717s at Delta are all equipped with glass cockpits. And while Delta’s Douglas fleet will fly on for a little longer, it was never the backbone of the domestic US operation in quite the same way as the Super 80 was at American.
Arriving at gate C2 at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Wednesday morning, and the area was already crowded with employees, executives, media and enthusiasts. Some, like us, were there to board Flight 80, the final revenue flight to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Others were there just to watch the final flight depart.
Boarding of Flight 80 began about 40 minutes prior to scheduled departure. The extra time allowed for members of American’s DFW operations leaders to take photos of each traveler as they boarded the final flight.
Stepping onboard the atmosphere was jubilant. The aircraft was filled with people who were excited to be in the final journey. There were the frequent fliers, many of whom were Executive Platinum or Concierge Key, American’s 2 highest levels. One claimed he had flown aboard American’s Super 80s 174 times.
Then there were the employees lucky enough to be a part of the final flight. While the flight had sold out months ago, the standby list was over 800 people long on the morning of the flight. Rumor had it that at one point over Labor Day Weekend, the standby list had peaked at over 1200 people, before the list had been pruned down.
Finally, there were the enthusiasts like myself. Eager to witness the end of an era, we had been lucky enough to have had the advance notice needed to be able to book what had become the hottest ticket in town. For one last time, we were about to enjoy the classic 1980s style McDonnell Douglas experience.
Let’s not forget the 6 crew members on the final flight. The 4 flight attendants had all competed for a spot in the final flight. Leading them that day was a woman described to me as the “number 1 flight attendant in Chicago.” She had gone out of her way to purchase a small memento for everyone onboard, which was paired with a handwritten note commemorating the final flight.
Up in the front of the plane, we had 2 captains piloting the final flight. Between them, they had roughly 50 years and well over 30,000 hours at the controls of the Super 80. The aircraft has long held a reputation as a pilot’s airplane, and both pilots were quite sentimental about leaving the old Mad Dogs for newer aircraft.
Pushing back, we were able to witness the size of the crowd that had turned up to see us off on the final journey. The ramp and surrounding terminal areas were filled with folks waiting, cameras at the ready, to watch one final revenue flight of the Super 80 depart. DFW had been home to the Super 80 for its entire 36+ year career with American, so it was fitting that it saw not only the final revenue departure, but was also the destination for the final 22 Super 80 passenger flights that began at outstations late in the evening on the 3rd and early in the morning on the 4th.
Remarkably little had changed with the Super 80 over the course of its career with American Airlines. Nowhere was that more true than in the passenger cabin. The seats remained thick, comfortable, and well padded, in an era where lightweight slimline seats are all the rage for airlines. The overhead luggage bins remained sized for a day when most travelers checked their luggage and only brought a small bag onboard. Then there was the distinctive Super 80 window shades, still blocking all outside light except for around the handle where the sun backlit a McDonnell Douglas logo.
One area on where you could have a wildly different experience onboard the Super 80 was the noise level. Towards the front of the aircraft, cabin noise levels were amongst the lowest you’ll find onboard a commercial aircraft. When I measured the sound levels onboard the Super 80, they were lower than those found on both the A320 family and 737. Of particular note, a window seat towards the front of a 737 was measured at more than double the volume found in a similar seat on the Super 80.
Towards the back of the plane it was a completely different story. The rear 2 rows of the Super 80 sit directly beside the aircraft’s JT8D engines. Back there, the roar of the engines can be deafening, a far cry from the solitude found forward of the wings.
One of the few things onboard the Super 80 that had evolved over time was the inflight entertainment. The original IFE was simply looking out the window, and one of our flight attendants on the final flight reminded us all that it was still the best. At some point, Gogo inflight WiFi was added to the planes. Much more recently, passengers were given the option of streaming video over the WiFi connection. However, for the final flight we chose to kick it old school and just enjoy the view out the window and the atmosphere onboard.
And what an atmosphere it was! Shortly after departure, the flight attendants came around to offer all passengers their choice of breakfast dish and beverage. Once the service was completed, the party was on! The aisles quickly filled with passengers and cabin crew meeting old friends, making new ones and generally having a grand old time at 29,000 feet. The favorite pastime of a few travelers became wandering the aisles pressing every one of the large orange call buttons that they could reach. By the end of the flight, the cabin crew was begging them to stop, lest they have an anxiety attack.
Far too soon, we were at the top of our descent into O’Hare. The pilots came on the PA for one last sentimental message to the passengers, before promising to place all of their attention on safely landing the aircraft. They noted that air traffic control had cleared the airspace ahead of us so that we would have a direct shot into Chicago.
As we approached 10,000 feet, the flight attendants pleaded with the jubilant fliers to return to their seats. Nobody really wanted this celebration of the Super 80’s storied career to end. However time and distance were not in our favor. Slowly, everyone filtered back to their seats for one final landing.
Many years ago I read that one of the most difficult and rare approaches to execute is one that does not use the aircraft’s speed breaks until after touchdown. Not only does it require perfect management of altitude and airspeed by the pilots, it also requires that the airspace along the approach be kept clear enough. In other words, it requires a combination of skill and luck. Not once along our entire approach did I see or feel the speed brakes deploy. Even at times when I felt us slowing and descending more rapidly, I’d look out the window to see the wing still clean as a whistle.
A few minutes ahead of schedule, we made a firm but smooth landing on Runway 10C at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. We taxied directly to Gate K5 where another welcoming party of airline employees eager to see the final Super 80 arrival had assembled.
Throughout the later part of the flight, a pair of safety cards had been circulating the cabin along with markers to sign them with. The safety cards will be presented to American Airlines’ C. R. Smith museum in Dallas as an artifact of the final flight. Upon landing, the markers were turned on the plane’s interior. Some passengers signed their names with their seat numbers for the final flight. Others wrote messages commemorating their time spent or commiserating about today’s more tightly packed and less comfortable cabins.
Disembarking the Super 80 was another slow process. Many passengers wanted to savor the interior of the classic aircraft just a little longer. A few wanted to grab a piece of the aircraft, despite the flight attendants admonishing the passengers not to do so prior to landing. Most wanted to stop and chat with the pilots for a little while, to thank them for getting us to Chicago safely, and to ask them a question or two.
One by one, we slowly got off of the plane and made our way up the jet bridge. Upon reaching the gate area, we were greeted by a completely packed house of employees and enthusiasts applauding each and every passenger that walked up the jet bridge. The crowd filled nearly every available inch of the gate area and spilled over onto the concourse. I quickly found myself surrounded by American Airlines employees eager to hear about the final flight from someone who had been on board. The love that these folks had for an airplane was truly remarkable.
Stepping onto the concourse, I quickly noticed the reaction of the average traveler. I’m sure that nearly all of them had no idea that today was the final flight. And I’m sure that some of them probably had less than fond memories of the aircraft from the days when it would have filled every other gate at O’Hare. But they all saw that there was a party going on. Some slowed their rush to the gate or to baggage claim, and took notice of the signs and balloons proclaiming that this was the end of the Super 80. And you could see it in their faces as they realized what they were seeing, while at the same time not fully knowing what they were witnessing. For the average traveler, it was the retirement of an airplane. For the employees and enthusiasts assembled, it was the end of an era.
This article first appeared on NYCAviation.com