Southern California

American Airlines Retires the Last of Its Iconic MD-80 Jets

It is a favorite plane of pilots, aviation enthusiasts and passengers, but after decades of use, American Airlines has said a final goodbye to the last 28 McDonnell Douglas MD-80s in their fleet.

Combined, the retiring aircraft flew over 750,000 flights, carrying more than 70 million passengers.

The aircraft were flown to their new retirement home in Roswell, New Mexico, the location of an aircraft boneyard.

Among them is the very last MD-80 ever delivered, fittingly named "Spirit of Long Beach" by its previous owner, TWA. Nearly every iconic MD-80 was built in the McDonnell Douglas plant off Lakewood Boulevard next to the Long Beach Airport.

"It was the biggest selling twin jet we had," said Jim Phillips, a former McDonnell Douglas-Boeing Executive who spent his career working with these planes.

Hundreds of thousands of aerospace jobs were based in Southern California for much of the last century, including roughly 30,000 in Long Beach at the peak of the MD-80's production in the early '90s.

The MD-80 was a child of the late '70s, and looked different from its peers. The engines were in the back, rather than under the wings, which kept most of the cabin quiet. The interior had a different layout that eliminated half of the cabin’s middle seats.


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After a decent start, sales struggled to take off, especially with big US airlines. In 1982, McDonnell Douglas decided to take a gamble. They offered 20 MD-80s for American Airlines to rent. If the airline didn’t like them, they could return them with no strings attached.

American Airlines liked them so much, they bought more, and other major airlines followed.

The MD-80 went on to be the most successful passenger jet built in Southern California. Almost 1,200 were sold over the nearly 20-year production run that ended in 1999. Over 360 went to fly for American Airlines, serving as the workhorse of the fleet through the '80s, '90s, and 2000s.

Today the MD-80 is not as fuel efficient as new planes, and they cost more to maintain. The production line in Long Beach has shut down, making parts harder to come by.

"I think the airplane has served its purpose and came at the right time and pushed other competitors to go one more step on airplanes," said Phillips.

In retirement, most of the aircraft will be slowly stripped for parts to support less than 200 MD-80s still flying around the world.

"It’s got a great structure to it and it has a long life ahead for other purposes and other airlines," Phillips said.

Some MD-80s have found new life as firefighting tankers and cargo freighters. A few others will go abroad to other airlines. For the rest of the 28 aircraft, their days of flying are now behind them.

Eventually the last of the MD-80s will join them in the boneyard, closing out a chapter in Southern California aviation history.

As one chapter ends, another one is beginning in Long Beach. The former McDonnell Douglas plant has been redeveloped into Douglas Park, which is home to several start-ups, including new aerospace companies.

Today Southern California is home to roughly 90,000 aerospace jobs.

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