Delta’s flight 2014 from Minneapolis to Atlanta yesterday had all the attraction of a longish bus ride. Passengers will be riding a jalopy of a jet, a 120-seat DC-9 that was manufactured in 1978. The round trip fare on the route is normally is about $550 to $700. But it was a notable trip nonetheless. The company that made the jet and the airline that first flew it are long gone‑‑and soon the DC-9 itself will join them in the annals airline archaeology.
Delta is using this flight 2014 to mark the end of the line for the DC-9 in the U.S. It is officially retiring the last half dozen DC-9s still running, although it will keep a couple around for another month as backups. Then, they will be off to air museums or that great airliner retirement home in the Arizona desert where DC-9s will find community with 707s, 727s, DC-10s and other early jet age relics.
Flight 2014 can tell you a lot about where the airline industry has been and where it’s going: about air safety, about the industry’s profits and losses, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, and the rise and fall of service levels. Delta’s last designated DC-9, tail number N773NC, was the 888th DC-9 out of 976 jets built at Douglas Aircraft Co. plant in Long Beach, California. The DC-9, (DC stands for Douglas Commercial) equipped with two, aft-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, was a squat aircraft built for the shorter runways of small to midsize communities. It allowed airlines to replace slower propeller planes in places such as Duluth, Minnesota.
That’s why North Central Airlines would buy 15 DC-9s in the late 1970s, including N773NC. Its 100 seats were arranged in 2×3 configuration in those days. There was a smoking section, which would guarantee your clothes would smell of smoke no matter where you sat. Delta’s flight 2014 was smoke free, of course, but it had 120 seats, including 16 first class seats, according to seatguru.com.
Quirky little North Central began life as Wisconsin Central Airlines, founded by an auto and truck company called Four Wheel Drive, which was having a hard time moving its products and people efficiently from its headquarters in Clintonville, Wis., near Green Bay. So FWD bought a couple of prop planes to move the merchandise but this being the Midwest, where everybody knew everybody in town, local businessmen kept cadging rides on FWD’s planes. Eventually the company decided it could earn a living as passenger airline for northerners.
North Central, which was known as Flying Duck airline because of its mallard logo, disappeared in the first wave of airline mergers in the wake of airline deregulation in 1978. North Central, the “Route of the Northerners” merged with another regional, Southern Airlines, in July 1979. The DC-9s came with the marriage, as did a number of Southern’s. The newly christened Republic kept the duck logo. Hughes Airwest was added a year later.
Republic had national reach, but the emergence of low-cost airlines such as People Express, Muse Air, and Southwest set off a wave of retaliatory fare wars by the majors. The big airlines also adopted a hub-and-spoke strategy to try to lower costs through scale and feed their international flights. So Northwest (Northwest Orient for a time) bought out Republic in 1986 and the North Central DC-9s had their third owner.
It was a horrible merger, given to service and labor troubles from which Northwest never quite recovered. In the post 9-11 decade, with the industry reeling from high fuel costs and excess capacity, Northwest went bankrupt in 2005. So did Delta. But Delta emerged stronger and acquired Northwest, and those North Central and Southern DC-9s, in 2008. Along the way, Delta also bought some DC-9s once owned by Eastern Air Lines, and one that changed hands from Austrian to Muse to TranStar to Eastern to Continental to Northwest over the course of 17 years.
Not only did Northwest disappear, so did the DC-9’s creator. Douglas Aircraft was bought out by McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in 1967 to form McDonnell Douglas. Future versions of the plane would be designed MD, as in the later MD-80. But after the failure of the MD-11 wide-body to gain commercial success, McDonnell Douglas was acquired by Boeing in 1997. Subsequently, the MD-80 became the Boeing 717. But Boeing stopped making the 717—a 737 competitor‑- on May 23, 2006. Boeing shut the famed Douglas Aircraft Long Beach, Calif. plant, which had produced more than 15,000 aircraft since the 1920s.
Delta, however, isn’t done with the 717. It’s replacing some of its DC-9s with used 717s. Delta is getting them from AirTran, which was bought by Southwest, which flies only 737s and wants to keep it that way. You’d think that replacing really old planes with merely older ones isn’t such a good deal for passengers, but in this case the 717s have seats that are 18 in. wide. Compare that with newer 737s, where the seats are 17 in. That one inch matters a lot in comfort, research by Airbus has shown.
DC-9s haven’t disappeared altogether, although it’s unlikely you will ever ride one again, unless you’re in the Navy, which still has more than a dozen, according to planespotters.net. Or unless you happen to be on Fly540 airlines, “Kenya’s Low cost airline,” which is still flying the 4th DC-9 ever built. That jet went into service in 1965, a mere 49 years ago. That jet was originally operated by Air Canada, and was subsequently transferred to Hawaiian, Southern, Finnair, British Midland, back to Finnair again, All Star, Midwest Express, Midwest, and East African Express before arriving at Fly540. Happy landings.
This is the way of many used airliners. They gradually make their way down the food chain to cargo or third world carriers such as Venezuela’s Aserca Airlines or Mexico’s Aeronaves TSM. According to the Aviation Safety Network, DC-9s have suffered 110 “hull loss” accidents with 3,462 fatalities. Delta suffered three of them, the worst a 1972 crash in Boston, blamed on pilot and air traffic control errors, that killed all 88 aboard. A Southern Airways DC-9 carrying the Marshall University football team crashed on November 14, 1970 trying to land in adverse weather, killing all 75 aboard, including a kid from my hometown, a halfback on the team. And on May 11, 1996, all 110 passengers and crew on a ValuJet DC-9 perished when it crashed into the Everglades after oxygen generators improperly stored in a cargo hold caused a fire. Which is to say that despite these horrors, the DC-9 has been a mechanically durable and safe aircraft during its years of operation.
DC-9s are not the only jets leaving for good. According to the consultancy ICF SH&E, the industry is entering a huge wave of jet retirements. Some 6,000 to 8,000 jets will be mothballed this decade, says the consultancy. That includes hundreds of 767s and 757s owned by Delta, American and Continental as they freshen their fleets. The new replacement jets such as the 787 Dreamliner, 737Max and the A320 NEO will have better entertainment and cabin systems; they’ll be faster, quieter and more environmentally friendly.
But in this era of tighter economics they are going to be a lot more crowded than the DC-9s of the 60s and 70s. That’s progress for you.