Why's the MD-80 Still Flying?


Sure it's a gas-guzzler, but the old plane has plenty in its favor despite the recent groundings to inspect wire bundles

The jet at the center of American Airlines' flight travails gulps gas and rumbles about in a far noisier fashion than newer models. It first took flight nearly 30 years ago and today is greeted by some passengers as a technology-deprived torture chamber. Yet despite its age and costs, the MD-80 remains a valued and dependable workhorse in airline fleets worldwide—which points to the many nuances in assessing flight safety at a time of heightened concern about aircraft maintenance.

American—which dubs the plane the Super80—is the world's largest operator of the jets, with 300, while Delta Air Lines (DAL) flies 117. In Europe, Alitalia and SAS Scandinavian Airlines are also major operators.

Compliance Audits Lead to Cancellations

"The MD-80 has been a terrific airplane for American Airlines," Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of American parent AMR (AMR), said at an Apr. 10 news conference to discuss the airline's 2,500 flight cancellations this week. "This [incident] will have no impact on our long-term fleet plans. The bigger issue for the MD-80 will be oil prices."

The MD-80's woes began last month when the Federal Aviation Administration began a series of compliance audits and found that bundles of wires stored in the jets' wheel wells had not been secured according to a September, 2006, agency directive. That led to widespread cancellations at American and Delta so that technicians could inspect and perform the required work. Then on Apr. 8, FAA inspectors at American's Dallas-Fort Worth hub found the wire work had not been performed according to specification. That led to another round of checks on all of American's MD-80s.

The airline said a third of the jets were back in service on Apr. 10, and it expected all the work to be completed by Saturday night, Apr. 12. Delta canceled a "handful" of flights Apr. 9-10 to reinspect the wire-bundle work and anticipated normal service on Friday, a spokeswoman said.

Lacking Fuel-Efficiency

The MD-80 was built by McDonnell Douglas, a company Boeing (BA) bought in 1997. The 140-seat plane succeeded the venerable DC-9, the world's third-best-selling aircraft, which dates to 1965. The MD-80 first flew in October, 1980, and has four derivative models. It was billed as a fuel-efficient replacement for Boeing's three-engine, three-crew 727. The MD-80 was a stretched version of Douglas Aircraft's DC-9, and airline lore has it that McDonnell Douglas used "80" in the name to signal that it had a product designed for the 1980s, a new era of deregulation and competition. McDonnell Douglas built the planes for 19 years; production ended in late 1999.

Today, the jet is considered a fuel hog. Airlines that fly it have retrofitted the engines to comply with noise rules, but still suffer a 25% to 35% loss in fuel efficiency over newer midsize jets. That's why operators such as Continental Airlines (CAL) and Northwest Airlines (NWA) have largely retired the jet in favor of Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s; American is slowly replacing it with new, larger versions of the 737.

As crude oil tops $112 per barrel, as it did this week, the MD-80's future is limited. Michael Boyd, president of aviation consultancy the Boyd Group, estimates American would see an immediate savings of $650 million if it replaced all its MD-80s with the new 737s. Still, American's MD-80 fleet age is only 18 years, relatively young in airplane terms, and the company owns most of them outright. "It's problematic but it's not like it's a dagger in their financial heart," says Boyd, who considers American's decision to keep the fleet a wise one until Boeing builds a carbon-fiber composite 737, as it is doing with the 787 Dreamliner.

Bureaucratic Overreaction?

The bigger question for fliers, of course, is whether the planes are safe. Pilots and airline executives insist it is, and the wire-bundle-related cancellations have inflamed some of them. Those FAA critics believe the agency's new rigor is a bureaucratic, political knee-jerk response to well-publicized congressional hearings. Those hearings were prompted by complaints from FAA inspectors that they were thwarted in doing their jobs by the agency's too-close relationship with airlines it regulates.

"Definitely a PR blitz for the FAA, notice how there haven't been any MX [mechanical] problems/groundings at any smaller carriers?" wrote a writer called "Flyby1206" who posted Apr. 9 at a Web site for airline pilots. A writer called "Oldfreightdawg" said his company had passed the wire-bundle inspections "except that the FAA inspector didn't like the orientation of the ties used to secure the wire bundle. They didn't match the pretty picture in his book. This is the equivalent of a cop pulling you over and busting a tail light with his night stick and citing you for it." The Apr. 9 post added: "The FAA is doing some serious CYA in Texas, they're running for their bureaucratic lives and it doesn't matter who is run over."

An FAA spokeswoman said the flight cancellations are "purely a safety decision."

Popular with Pilots

Arpey and other American officials have strenuously avoided any criticism of the FAA, citing complexity and different ways to interpret the detailed, 38-page airworthiness directive the agency issued about the wire bundles in September, 2006. The directive was written into an "engineering compliance order" by American's engineers for maintenance technicians to implement the repair. It is that process which has come under fire at American and is blamed by many pilots for the second MD-80 grounding, says Kevin Cornwell, an American MD-80 pilot from Keller, Tex. "In no way is this a line-mechanic problem. This is a management problem."

At American's Apr. 10 news conference, Arpey said that interpreting an FAA airworthiness directive involves "a great deal of judgment" and that even FAA engineers can disagree about the proper method for certain repairs or changes.

After working so long with the MD-80s, some American pilots swear by them. "I am surgically attached to it at the hip," jokes Cornwell, who became a Super80 captain in 1990. "It was and is very reliable and economical, and it's been a good airplane for us." He says some passengers grumble at the Spartanism—there's no satellite TV, audio service, or movies. "But when we hit 10,000 feet, I ding the bell…and I'm sure everybody turns on their laptops and they can watch their movies or work. I don't think it's a big deal."


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