American Airlines Gives The MD-80 A Super Send-Off

Old planes end up in the desert without much fanfare pretty much every day.  That’s what made for a unique day in the aviation industry this week.  It started at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and ended in Roswell, New Mexico.  Roswell isn’t just known for Area 51.  It’s also the home of the “Boneyard”, an industry term for the Roswell International Air Center.  It’s where old airplanes go to die, get cut up for scrap metal and occasionally get repurposed.  My day following the last AA MD-80 to Roswell was one that I won’t forget for quite some time.  There were equal parts aviation geek crawling around old planes, touching stories from employees and pictures.  Lots of pictures.

Side note: While AA did fly me to Roswell and back on the final MD-80 flight, I covered all my travel expenses to get to and from DFW.  All my thoughts are my own.

The Last MD-80 Flight

A bit of history for me and the MD-80. When I started traveling for my job, I chose American Airlines as my primary airline.  My father had been an American Airlines flier for years and years, so it seemed a logical place to start.  The MD-80 was a workhorse for American, and it became a plane I found myself on almost weekly.  For years, I would board a “Mad Dog” bound for DFW from my home airport of Washington-Dulles. From there, I’d connect to any number of cities.  It never occurred to me back then that the MD-80 was anything other than an airplane.  But, it came to signify many of the reasons I patronize American Airlines.

To put things in perspective, I flew this plane a lot.  By the most accurate measure I can find, I boarded an American Airlines MD-80 over 260 times.  I’m sure I missed a few here and there.  But, my flight tracker shows 267 flights on an MD-80 over the years.  That’s a lot of time spent with the Mad Dog.

Now, not everyone loves the MD-80.  Gary has some strong opinions about why we shouldn’t care.  Color me the aviation version of “hopeless romantic”.  I’m sad to see the MD-80 go.  It’s not just the unpainted, polished exterior that I grew to love.  Nor was it the 2-3 configuration in coach where you had whole side of the plane that didn’t have to be stuck in the middle seat.  It was the team.  And, if I’m being completely truthful, those wonderful cookies American used to bake onboard.

Over many years of flying on American Airlines, we got to know the employees based in Dulles and they got to know us.  There was a familiarity when we boarded.  It didn’t hurt that upgrades almost always cleared, meaning I was sitting in a comfy first class seat. Back then, the MD-80 didn’t have frequent maintenance problems like had been more commonplace today.  Yesterday was a celebration of those days where the MD-80 helped fuel incredible growth for the airline, making up 49% of the entire fleet at one point.

There were plenty of festivities in DFW. Employees, retirees and aviation geeks lined the windows for a picture as the last revenue flight pushed back from the gate. The flight was temporarily numbered flight 80 in honor of the retiring aircraft type.

The atmosphere was definitely charged up with plenty of aviation geeks posing for pictures with CEO Doug Parker and having him autograph various MD-80 memorabilia.

There were more observers than passengers on that final revenue flight and they filled the gate area.  If this were the olden days, there would have been a lot of “film” burned up as the plane pushed back from the gate bound for Chicago, then ultimately the desert.

 

Soon enough the media flight took off headed for Roswell. We were a short 61 minutes in flight before touching down to a long taxi around the airport to look at the various retired aircraft stacked up around the field.

MD-80s in The Roswell Boneyard

Roswell Boneyard

The grounded 737 MAX fleet is split up between Roswell and Tulsa at the moment. Brand new planes lining the boneyard.

737 MAX Aircraft Waiting To Fly Again

We also got to exit the tail of the MD-80, something you won’t really find in today’s more modern aircraft.

Saying Goodbye In Roswell

 

There were some short, meaningful speeches from long-time AA employees who had incredible memories of the MD-80. After that, we were quickly kicked out of the hangar to watch the last five MD-80s land. 

The planes were opened up for us to explore. Pilots hung around to answer questions and reminisce about the plane.  Along the way I took a lot of pictures. There were way too many to post all of them. However, I did finally get that picture in an overhead bin. At the same time, I figured out what an oblique muscle was, as I’m pretty sure I pulled an oblique getting into the bin. Worth the pain. 

Getting In An Overhead Bin Is Harder Than I Expected

There were some gymnastics to get into the cargo hold as well. 

With the party in full swing, I sat down with Kurt Stache, a Senior VP who’s been with American for 25 years for a podcast interview.  Stay tuned next week to hear that.  It was definitely fun and just a bit challenging to record a podcast segment in an airplane hangar.

It was clear American Airlines put some thought into the festivities.  Along with touches like honorary flight numbers, the airline also built in some significance to the list of final departure cities.  The first MD-80 we witnessed touching down came from St. Louis, once a mighty hub for TWA, an airline American acquired almost two decades ago.

As the final MD-80 landed at Roswell and taxied to our waiting area, we were eager to hop onboard and inspect an in-air air project that popped up on the last revenue flight to Chicago.  I had some friends on that flight, so I had an idea of what to expect when we got to peek inside.  Even though I knew what had happened, the “art” project was bigger than I expected.  In less than 2 hours they managed to leave some fun art and some heartfelt messages from folks who love the “Mad Dogs”.

The Final Two Pennies

As our flight back to DFW taxied away from the terminal, the slightly tired, slightly sunburned group of employees and media sat relatively quietly.  The plane took its first turn towards the runway and all of a sudden the cabin was noisy again with cameras pressed up against windows.  

People were pointing out different liveries, some new to this part of the desert whereas others clearly had stood for some time.  The chatter of tail numbers and airplane types continued for a few minutes until we reached the runway.  A speedy takeoff, a last look over Roswell and we were on our way.

The MD-80 experience was a full day, arriving back to DFW Airport shortly after 7pm.  I had a bit over an hour to catch my connecting flight.  On the walk from one terminal to another I passed the same gate we departed from that morning.  Parked at the gate was an American Airlines plane painted in the new(ish) livery.  To the vast majority of customers, it’s not the end of an era.  It’s just a new plane waiting to greet them in the morning.  The world moves on.

As I opened up my laptop to put some words to virtual paper, I couldn’t help but feel the day exceeded my expectations.  I expected the fun of aviation geeks crawling around on planes.  I had hoped to snag a couple of fun shots (though my side still hurts from the overhead bin).  What I wasn’t expecting were the stories.  The 5th generation AA employee who held up the book his father had used to record each of his son’s flights dating back to when he was a few weeks old.  The woman who spent her life routing MD-80s through American’s skies. 

In the end, airlines are about people.  Sure, they’re about airplanes and routes and dream destinations.  But, all of those key elements need people to make them happen.  On this day, the people, the team of American Airlines came out to wish farewell to an old friend. And, I was lucky enough to be a spectator.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks, great post. Like you I started my business flying in a MD 80 out of IND and normally through ORD or DFW. Many-many great memories of those aircraft. I do recall there were a couple of versions, one with larger engines that the pilots loved more.

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