American to retire MD-80 in 2017; faces interesting PaxEx decisions

Rotation

American Airlines, once the largest operator of the venerable McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 series of aircraft, has quietly announced the retirement date of the iconic aircraft: by the end of 2017, according to documents filed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Over the last decade, the 737-800 has replaced the MD-80 as the backbone of the American fleet,” American says. Indeed, “in the combined American network, the 737-800 accounts for more domestic ASMs [available seat miles] than the MD-80 and regional fleet combined.” 

American Airlines' popular MD-80 seat layout

American Airlines’ popular MD-80 seat layout

Notably, American doesn’t seem to have adjusted its plans to retire the MD-80 on account of the recent reductions in the price of fuel. The fleet, once almost 400-strong, will continue to be replaced by the Boeing 737-800, as well as by new Airbus A319 aircraft, which American calls the “MD-80 domestic network replacement for small, medium or high frequency markets”. 

But the aluminium elephant in the boardroom is the availability of the fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft from the former US Airways, and it’s there that American has an interesting fleet opportunity.

American’s MD-80 operation, focussed recently on short-haul operations at its Dallas hub, operates 140-seat aircraft — 16 in first, 124 in economy. That size appears to work well to maximise frequency and turn times on these routes, with the MD-80’s popular 18.5-inch wide economy seats and 2-3 layout down back a big plus for flyers (and its loud engines, a negative).

The nominal replacement 737-800, meanwhile, has either 10 or 20 extra passengers in economy compared with the MD-80, with newest 737s having the higher capacity. If American maintains its frequencies, it will add capacity to DFW markets that may not support that size, although careful aircraft planning to replace lower demand market MD-80 services with the older 150-seater 737s may prove advantageous.

On the other side of the MD-80 in terms of capacity, American’s A319 is a 128-seater, although it offers just eight first class seats, half the amount of the MD-80. Dallas hub frequent flyers, and AAdvantage members across the south-central US, are likely to find their upgrade chances curtailed.

Ten or 20 too many seats overall, or 12 too few — that’s the adjustment American’s network planners need to make.

MSN 5678 American Airlines FF Start

American A319 (MSN 5678)

The rabbit in the medium-term hat may be US Airways’ A320s, which are currently 150-seaters like the 737-800, but with 12 first class seats and no extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seats. If American were to refit these aircraft with the MCE product, a decision to either maintain twelve first class seats or reduce the number to the A319’s eight could right-size the A320 to replace the MD-80 in some markets.

A thoughtful reconfiguring of the A320 to allow fine-tuning of premium seating capacity could be the trump card here — especially in the twin contexts of airlines tightening loyalty roles to reduce the number of higher-tier passengers and offering more ways and price points to buy up to first class.

With an increasingly strong economy, airlines aren’t feeling the same need to reward their frequent flyers that they did five to eight years ago, but the economy is cyclical.

The choices American makes now will likely last into the next downturn — so the airline needs to choose wisely.

The combined American-US fleet at 31 Dec '14 already shows an MD-80 fleet a quarter of what it once was

The combined American-US fleet at 31 Dec ’14 already shows an MD-80 fleet a quarter of what it once was

10 Comments

  1. Bobby

    I like the md80 series. Although loud I love the old school power and sound!!! They r very good planes and American maintains them very well

  2. Armando

    American will retire the MD-80 in 2018 according to the documents filed to the Securities & Exchange Commission. The graph shows the number of MD-80 aircraft in the fleet as of December 31 of each year. There will be thirty-four at the end of 2017 and zero at the end of 2018.

  3. Tom

    Only 8 first class seats on the 319? Wow… They might actually be filled by paying customers instead of AAdvantage Uupgrades.

  4. John

    I love the MD-80, and the engine noise is fine by me…as is the sound of air rushing around the fuselage in first class…contrary to corporate belief, some of us still actually like to know that we’re flying…we like loud engines, turbulence, etc…. as opposed to sitting motionless, with no sound, at 5 miles above the earth.

  5. H.P.Rafferty

    American’s legendary Tulsa facility has been able to do major overhauls on the MD-80s since day one in the 1980s.

    Quitte a testament to a fine organization..

  6. Brian Moore

    Can’t wait to see them go. Too noisy. I leave in the raleigh area and you always know one of the old md80s are going by as they are way louder than most everything else. They’ve had their day

  7. Jeff

    Was a passenger on many an MD-80 series aircraft, operated by American and others (anyone remember Reno Air). Also knew of one that lost an engine on take of out of San Jose due to bird strike but was able to make it back down safely. Noisy in back but very quiet I thought in front. Seats were decent size in the back as well compared to how they are packin’ em into more current aircraft.

  8. Chris

    You’re lol fine with MD 80 noise until you live in a community that has to hear the damn loud aluminum tubes rattling your roof tops—way to loud and out of date! Good riddance.