The End is Nigh / Originally published in AIRLINE: November, 2019
For American Airlines ship N9615W, the end is nigh.
Three days from now, the working life of this 22-year-old McDonnell Douglas MD-83 will be over. She’ll be shuttled to the idyllic splendor of a Roswell, N.M., scrap yard, stripped of her paint and other markings, and left to bake in the searing sun of the American southwest.
Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the airplane. Its polished aluminum skin still shines, and the engines continue to hum with the same rhythmic roar they always have.
That isn’t to say that she’s unblemished either: tray tables are broken here and there, the water in the rear lavatory didn’t flow, and obsolete, DC-style power ports go mostly unused.
But N9615W is simply old—seasoned, accomplished, and ready to retire.
By the end of the day on September 4, N9615W and her 25 remaining siblings will exit the American Airlines fleet for good, ending a 36 year run. She’ll have been replaced by newer jets, part of a nearly decade-long fleet renewal program bent on retiring older aircraft such as these.
On the last Sunday of its working life, N9615W was cozied up to gate C-36 at American’s Dallas/Ft. Worth super hub. Captain Rob MacDougal and first officer Michael Brown are busy on the flight deck, checking off a long list of preflight to-dos attached to the yoke.
“It’s really the last old fashioned jet,” said Captain MacDougal as he adjusted one of the dozens—if not hundreds—of dials filling every corner of the cockpit. Aside from a duo of iPads to replace paper charts and a few CRT screens added well after its delivery in 1997, there’s virtually nothing in MacDougal’s office that reflects the 21st century we’re all in.
Instead of the gleaming digital displays and streamlined panels found in today’s modern flight decks, the MD-80 is filled with analog instruments, vacuum-driven gauges, and actual wires connecting the pilots to flight control surfaces. “There’s still a cable attached to this yoke,” said MacDougal with a smile. “We’re really making the flight controls move.”
“It’s gonna be quite a big change, coming from the old school to catching up to the 21st century,” added Brown.
Of course today’s old fashioned was yesterday’s state of the art.
American placed its first order for the MD-80 in 1982 for exactly the same reason that it is retiring them now: the need to cut operating costs.
Since the mid-1960s, the airline had been flying Boeing 727s, an expensive, three-engine jet that also required three crew members in the cockpit. American needed a replacement in the 125-150 seat category to deploy on routes like Boston to Chicago and Dallas to Los Angeles.
McDonnell Douglas, meanwhile, was working hard to sell its latest model. The MD-80, a stretched, modernized version of the venerable Douglas DC-9 (the company originally marketed the jet as the “DC-9 Super 80”), took its first flight in 1979. Foreign airlines were the first to take delivery, but the company badly wanted to sell the jet to a carrier based in the United States. American Airlines declined at first, but McDonnell Douglas persisted, offering a deal on a lease agreement. American took the bait and ordered 20 in 1982, dubbing it the Super 80.
The first plane arrived in May of the following year, and it became an instant hit. The twin-engine, two-seat cockpit design was a huge improvement in operating costs over the 727, saving as much as 37 percent on the same routes. Executives loved the plane so much that they ordered an additional 13 that year. “Without question,” raved the airline’s 1983 annual report, “the Super 80 is the right airplane at the right time for American.”
History would prove it. Within seven years, the Super 80 had taken its place as the backbone of American’s domestic fleet, with 260 delivered or on order. It fueled and sustained the airline’s breakneck development of its hub-and-spoke network in the 1980s and 1990s, especially since the plane’s versatility allowed it to deploy on short flights, say between Chicago and Dallas, or on longer ones like Boston–St. Louis.
By the early 2000s, the airline’s MD-80 fleet had ballooned to 373 through its acquisition of Reno Air in 1998 and the merger with Trans World Airlines in 2001. American was so enamored with the plane’s performance and versatility that at one point the airline by itself would come to operate just under one-third of the 1,198 MD-80s ever made.
It was through the TWA merger that American acquired N9615W, yet another in a cavalry of airborne workhorses for American’s far-reaching domestic network of hubs and spokes. Eighteen years and untold hundreds of thousands of air-miles later, it was poised to make a quick flight to nearby El Paso, Texas on a late Sunday afternoon.
“You know, I’m gonna make a special announcement,” said flight attendant Jeannie Rothamel, a seven year veteran working the first class cabin. Rothamel’s voice cracked over the aging PA system as she shared a little bit about the history of the airplane and its coming retirement to a largely apathetic compliment of passengers.
“A lot of folks laughed at me because I love this aircraft, but I really enjoy flying her,” she said. She took a moment to point out her favorite features, namely the large front galley and the generously padded seats in economy. “It’s got more room here in the front galley,” she said. “The back? Not so much.”
Not long after take off, flight attendant Lesley is crammed into the significantly smaller rear galley, slinging sodas and tiny pretzels to passengers in the aft economy cabin. While Rothamel’s end of the plane is deafly quiet, the other end is liable to cause crew and passengers alike to go deaf. The two engines, mounted in the rear across the last few rows of seats, create a whine so loud it can be hard to hear simple conversation.
Neither of the two crew members working economy seemed particularly nostalgic about the plane’s departure, remarking instead that they wished it had left years ago. The antiquated device chargers, lack of TVs, and often temperamental mechanical nature left many a passenger over the years likewise ready to see the airplane move along.
Rothamel’s enthusiasm remained undaunted. “I think she’ll be sorely missed,” she said before conceding that it might be time to see them go nevertheless.
“But…she has served us well, and we love her dearly.”
On the ground in El Paso, MacDougal, Brown, and Rothamel prepare the old bird for her trip back to Dallas. Tires are kicked, fresh sodas stocked, new passengers boarded. If the plane didn’t know any better—and it doesn’t—it’d just be another afternoon. A crowd of four gathers to watch as the jet takes the runway, soon roaring overhead as cell phones dutifully capture the moment.
N9615W gracefully turns to the east in a slow, measured climb across the sky. The familiar shape of the T-tail morphs into a shimmering silver speck before fading imperceptibly into the deep, blue sky.