Delta Air Lines just ended a 33-year era as another fleet of aircraft was sent off for retirement.
The financial difficulty brought on by the coronavirus have spurred nearly every business to re-evaluate their operations and weed out any inefficiencies. Some airlines are realising that they now have too many aircraft and are leaning their fleets accordingly, which have seen the advanced retirement of older aircraft.
For Delta, America’s second-largest airline, that meant saying goodbye to its oldest fleet type, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 and MD-90 series aircraft, also known as “Mad Dogs.” On June 2, the final few Long Beach, California-built aircraft transported their last passengers from across the country to Atlanta before being sent to an aircraft graveyard in Arkansas.
A true workhorse of any fleet it was in, the first MD-80 series aircraft joined the Delta fleet in 1987 and was an integral part of the airline’s operation for over three decades. Now, it will be phased out to make way for newer aircraft as part of a wide-ranging fleet renewal.
It’s the second aircraft retirement for Delta in nearly as many years, with the airline retiring its Boeing 747-400 aircraft in December 2017, but there’s more to come. Delta’s Boeing 777 aircraft will also exit the fleet before the end of 2020.
Here’s what it was like for Delta on the final day of operations with McDonnell Douglas aircraft.
Delta began accelerating the retirement of its MD-80 and MD-90 series aircraft in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic saw passenger levels drop dangerously low for airlines.
June 2 would see eight final passenger flights take place for the iconic McDonnell Douglas aircraft that first entered the Delta fleet in 1987.
The final flights would arrive in Atlanta from Washington, DC; Houston, Texas; Hartford, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sarasota, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina, all before noon.
Some of the flights were given a special flight number to commemorate the day. The flight from Hartford was given DL1987 after the year the first MD-80 series aircraft entered the fleet while the final MD-88 flight from Washington and MD-90 flight from Houston were given DL88 and DL90, respectively.
Here’s N974DL at the gate in Hartford resting before its final passenger flight, a quick hop to Atlanta.
While normally a routine flight, this would be the last time paying customers would walk through its doors.
This particular jet was built in Long Beach, California by McDonnell Douglas in 1991, serving Delta Air Lines for the entirety of its 29-year career.
With the ongoing pandemic, the flight was only around half full as Delta has blocked every middle seat and some aisle seats.
The MD-80 series aircraft were known for their unique 2-3 configurations, one that’s rarely found on more modern aircraft.
The two-side would be ideal for solo travellers or couples, with no pesky middle seat getting in the way.
Passengers on the three-side for this flight would have their middle seats open due to Delta’s social distancing policy.
Delta recently retrofitted the interior of the aircraft with its newest seats, giving the aircraft a slightly more modern look.
But despite the cosmetic upgrade, the MD-80 and MD-90 series aircraft never got such luxuries as seat-back entertainment screens. In-flight WiFi and in-seat power were, however, installed across the fleet.
Those were about the only enhancements, with the aircraft’s age showing in places like the overhead panels.
The seatbelt sign wasn’t even properly illuminating.
One passenger’s seat was stuck in recline mode but there was no need to fix it after this flight.
Even the windows were unique, with winged handles that once featured McDonnell Douglas branding before Delta retrofitted the interior.
Safety cards would also become collector’s items with flight attendants giving the spare ones to the enthusiasts on board, who then had the crew sign them as a memento from their last flight.
After the airport staff loaded up their last MD-88, it was time for photos. Even airport operations staff came down to get one last glimpse at the aircraft.
One last wave goodbye for the Mad Dog.
Then it took to the skies for the final time with passengers on board.
“This is a historic day for this plane, it’s the last revenue flight and you’re the last passengers to fly on it,” the captain of DL1987 said. “I’ve been married to this plane for 23 years, I’ve got a lot of hours on it.”
It was a solemn occasion for many reasons as we were saying goodbye to an iconic aircraft due to a pandemic that’s still ongoing and wreaking havoc on aviation.
Despite the inauspicious circumstances surrounding the day, flight attendants still came around to thank elite flyers for their business, and the simple phrase “We’re real happy to see you this morning” had a new level of sincerity to it.
As we began the two-hour journey down the coast to Atlanta, it was time to get one last glimpse at the MD-88. Most of the aircraft’s interesting features are at the back of the plane, with the giant Pratt and Whitney JT8D engines resting right next to the last few rows.
The seats next to the engines were the loudest but were the most sought after by enthusiasts.
In some rows, the engine obstructed the view entirely.
Here’s the door leading to the rear air-stair, another unique feature of the aircraft. Delta opted not to put a galley here, only two lavatories.
With the engines mounted in the back of the plane and not on the wings, the rest of the plane was known for being incredibly quiet.
It was blue skies the entire flight.
Just under two hours later, we arrived in Atlanta, Delta’s largest hub.
As we taxied around the airport, where Delta’s McDonnell Douglas fleet was once a common sight, the pilots invited all interested passengers to have a look at the flight deck.
They even left a note on the panel saying “Trusty steed, thanks for the memories.”
It’s a quirky and highly-mechanical cockpit, unlike those found in the modern airliners today.
For comparison, here’s a look at an Airbus A220 cockpit, which will largely be replacing the McDonnell Douglas jets.
There’s a distinct lake of glass screens in this cockpit and most pilots say the aircraft’s lack of technology makes it more fun to fly.
We arrived an hour before the final MD-88 flight from Washington, DL88. Scores of enthusiasts had flown in from across the country to witness the final Mad Dog arrival.
And here it is, N900DE, a 28-year-old McDonnell Douglas MD-88, fresh in from Washington Dulles International Airport.
Delta held a small ceremony in Washington for its retirement.
Most passengers were enthusiasts eager to be on the last flight and left notes in permanent marker across the aircraft, as is tradition.
The flight’s captain, Carl Nordin, became a celebrity for the morning, signing countless pieces of memorabilia for passengers.
Captain Nordin has been with Delta since 1990, flying the MD-88 as a captain since 2005 and moving up in the ranks to become chief line check pilot.
His favourite thing about the aircraft is its lack of the advanced technology found on newer models. “You’re really flying the aircraft,” Nordin told Business Insider. “You have to stay on top of it.”
Among his favourite experiences flying the aircraft was piloting rescue missions to Great Abaco in the Bahamas on behalf of Delta after Hurricane Dorian.
On the ground in Atlanta, Delta invited enthusiasts to tour the aircraft one last time before it got sent off to Arkansas.
Here’s the MD-90 that had arrived earlier from Houston right next door.
Over 9,000 Delta pilots were trained to fly this aircraft in its 33 years at the airline.
For Delta flight attendants, it often was the first plane that they worked out of training.
These JT8D engines produced 43,400 pounds of thrust.
Together, they gave the aircraft a top speed of 574 miles per hour.
After flying nearly 1 billion passengers over 33 years, here the final two sit awaiting their fate.
Replacing the aircraft will be the Airbus A220 aircraft, the new pride of Delta’s fleet offering fuel efficiency and more passenger-friendly amenities.
The McDonnell Douglas legacy will live on with the Boeing 717, designed by the now-defunct manufacturer but built by Boeing after the two merged.
Despite the need to retire the aircraft and the benefits associated with investing in their replacements, the Mad Dogs will be missed.