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The AMAZING McDonnell Douglas MD-80 Flies On!

by D R. Pemble, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Field Service Representative (retired September, 2009)

The MD-80 entered airline service in 1980; through the end of its production in late-December of 1999, a total of
1191 airplanes had been delivered. As of late 2015, a large percentage of these airplanes remain in service with airlines
around the world! Today some consider this remarkable airplane to be an old and noisy, gas guzzler and wonder just
how it can still be in service. This article is intended to convey a few MD-80 facts and hopefully dispel a few myths!

For an airplane like the MD-80 that was first produced and delivered over 35 years ago, it is
not realistic to compare it to todays newest, state-of-the-art, high-technology airplanes;
after all, it is expected that each successive generation of new commercial transport aircraft
designs will be at least a notch or two more advanced than its predecessors. Thus, herein,
lets just examine a few facts that have made the MD-80 the truly great airplane that it has
been and continues to be.

(DC-9-Super 80 photo from the Douglas Service magazine September/October, 1981 issue)

MD80 ENTRY INTO SERVICE


At the time that the MD-80 entered airline service on October 10, 1980, with its launch
customer Swissair, it was one of the most technologically-advanced, noise-friendly and fuelefficient airplanes in its class while also producing operating costs amongst the lowest in
commercial aviation. Four MD-80 models, the -81/-82/-83/-88 are all the same length, can
accommodate up to 172 passengers, and have 1572-2550 nautical mile ranges. The approximately 17-feet-shorter MD-87 has a maximum passenger capacity of 139 and a maximum range of 2374 nautical miles.
The McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company-designed twin-jet family, comprising a total of
2449 DC-9s, MD-80s, MD-90s, and MD-95 (later re-branded as the B-717), is listed as
one of the most successful of airliners ever built; the Douglas twinjet family ranks third
behind the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
A new airplane is considered to have matured when it consistently achieves and maintains a
high Technical Dispatch Reliability rating. Technical Dispatch Reliability is defined as: a
ratio of the number of flights delayed because of technical faults to the total number of
scheduled flights. An example is: if just 1 flight in 100 scheduled flights is delayed, the dispatch reliability rate is 99%. Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) was the first U.S. operator of
the MD-80. For some time, PSA had the worlds largest fleet of MD-80s with their total of
31! Most significantly, while flying each airplane an average of 10-12 hours and landings per
day, PSA eventually achieved a 5-year-average dispatch reliability rating of 99.4%! Very few
airlines or airplanes can EVER top this number especially considering PSAs high utilization of their MD-80s.

(McDonnell Douglas product card photo)

MD-80 NOISE IMPACT


When the MD-80 received its Type Airworthiness Certificate from the United States Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) during August of 1980, it met all then-current FAA noise
standards (Stage 3) making it one of the quietest airplanes in its class! Today more stringent
FAA regulations mandate newly-certificated aircraft compliance with Stage 4 noise limitations, as effective for aircraft certified after January 1, 2006. All aircraft already certificated
at the time that compliance to Stage 3 noise requirements was mandated, as was the case for
the MD-80, can continue to operate as is. There are modifications available for the MD-80
that will allow it to meet Stage 4 noise requirements; however, implementation of the modifications on current in-service MD-80s is optional and not mandated.

In the reduced noise category, when the MD-80 entered service it handily beat out its 727, 737100/200, and BAC1-11 competitors! Noise from these aircraft, and the modification costs
involved in meeting the more stringent requirements, is part of the reason they are mostly all
retired today!
MD-80 FUEL EFFICIENCY & COST OF OWNERSHIP
Although the design of the MD-80 airframe is aerodynamically very efficient (and can become
even more so with a few currently-available modifications), due to the earlier-generation
JT8D-200-series engines, as installed on the MD-80, the MD-80 is not nearly as fuel efficient
as newer airplanes equipped with later model engines. For a typical flight the MD-80 burns
1050 US gallons/3200 liters per hour, versus an approximate 19% reduction in fuel used for
the same flight on a 737-800. Based on high fuel costs, a significant number of MD-80 operators elected to retire their MD-80s in favor of purchasing newer more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Today in 2015, due to the recent substantial world-wide reductions in fuel costs and the already-comparatively-lower maintenance costs for the JT8D-200 series engines and MD-80
airframe, some airlines should be seriously re-thinking the viability and economics related to
sustaining and even initiating MD-80 services.

MD-80 AGE & SAFETY


In 2008 (28 years after the MD-80 entered airline service), reputable media sources reported
that: When measured by accident data alone, the MD-80 is considered to be one of the safest
airplanes in the sky. The airplane has a fatal hull-loss rate - meaning a crash involving
fatalities - of 0.34 per one million departures, and an overall hull-loss, or crash rate, of 0.52
per million departures. By comparison, the average record for all commercial jets is 0.89 fatal
hull losses per million departures, and an overall rate of 1.64 hull losses per million departures. Of course when any airplane accident occurs, the specific airplane involved is subjected to high profile attention!
Throughout the airline industry, Douglas Aircraft-built airplanes have always had an
admirable reputation for their structural robustness and the MD-80 is no exception! Just
look at the PSA record as previously mentioned; the statistics related to high utilization prove
just how tough the MD-80 structure was and still is!
The MD-80 original design service life was set at 50,000 flying hours, 50,000 landings, or 20
years. As stated earlier: 1191 MD-80s were delivered between October, 1980 and December,
1999; as of November, 2014, there were still 568 airplanes in service with 74 operators; thus,
the average age of all these airplanes at the time was 15-34 years old.

The continuing airworthiness and safety of all airplane types are dependent to a large extent
upon the airplanes structural integrity; additionally, an airplanes continuing airworthiness
and safety is also very much dependent on the integrity of its systems and associated wiring.
WIDESPREAD FATIGUE DAMAGE
On January 14, 2011, a new U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule became
effective requiring airplane manufacturers to make available service actions necessary to
preclude the onset of Widespread Fatigue Damage and to establish operational limits, known
as Limits of Validity (LOV), of a maintenance program that would effectively define an
airplanes usable life. Widespread Fatigue Damage that occurs in certain specific critical
structural components could result in loss of the aircraft!
MD-80 LIMITS OF VALIDITY (LOV)
LOV is defined as: the period of time (in flight cycles, hours or both) up to which widespread
f a t i g u e damage will not occur in the MD-80 structure. Boeing set the LOV (revised
service life) for the MD-80 at 130,000 landings or 150,000 hours. This LOV was established
based on exhaustive & extensive analysis of design and in-service data and data related to
actual fatigue testing and teardown of a high time in-service DC-9. The actual fatigue testing
cycled the airframe to well beyond the noted established LOV. However, some attenuation was
applied to these results to assure that any failure of certain specific critical structural
components within the entire MD-80 fleet, up to the time of the established LOV would be
highly improbable!
Based on current MD-80 operators adhering to established manufacturers & industry guidelines and associated regulatory authority (FAA and their world-wide counterparts) mandates
that are now in effect, their MD-80s can be continued in service until such time as they
achieve 130,000 cycles or 150,000 flight hours. After either the 130,000 cycle or 150,000
flight-hour limit is met, it is strongly recommended by Boeing that the airplane be permanently retired. In fact when an airline submits their plan to the FAA for approval to extend the
service life of their MD-80s, they must also convey their plan to retire the airplanes when they
achieve the noted LOV number(s).
THE MD-80 FUTURE
Given the outstanding design qualities of the MD-80 and its service life extension, it should
come as no surprise to anyone to see this truly amazing and remarkable airplane safely and
reliably continuing to serve the airline industry and traveling public for many, many more
years to come!
It is likely that for all the reasons stated above, Delta Air Lines will be keeping their fleet of
MD-88 airplanes for some time to come. The cost of ownership is far in favor for the MD-88
and other MD-80 models utilized by the worlds airlines, even with their higher fuel consumption!

Authors note: I wish to acknowledge Mr. Jim Phillips, Long Beach Division General Manager/717 Program
Manager, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, (retired 2004), Mr. Jack Rowan, McDonnell Douglas (MDC) Airframe
Technology Executive Specialist and MDC Fellow (retired 1996), Mr. Joe Callahan, MDC MD-80 Chief Design
Engineer/Twinjet Engineering General Manager (Retired 1992), and Mr. Rolf Sellge, Chief Customer Engineer/
Twinjet, Boeing Commercial Airplanes (retired 2001) for their valuable contributions to this article!

December 13, 2015