(taken from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com)
The MD-80 and its variants are among the last extant reminders that there once was another American manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, to compete with Boeing and Airbus for jet orders from the airlines.
Measured by accident data alone, the MD-80 is considered to be one of the safest planes in the sky. According to Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the plane 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, Boeing said.
The figures include today’s crash in Madrid of an MD-82, Spanair Flight JK5022, which appears to have killed more than 150 people, according to Spanish authorities.
The crash comes only a few months after American Airlines’ battle with the Federal Aviation Administration over the inspection of its fleet of MD80s, which put the plane in a spotlight with American travelers last spring.
The MD-80 has its roots in the 1960s, when it was developed as a descendant of the DC-9, which in turn was a companion to the DC-8 jet, one of the first airliners of the jet era. The DC-9, still in use by Northwest Airlines, was designed to be used on shorter flights; the Douglas Aircraft half of McDonnell-Douglas developed the MD-80 as a second generation of the DC-9. It was originally called the Super 80, and you still see that name used by American in its timetables.
It has been a workhorse for a wide variety of airlines, from SwissAir and Austrian Airlines the first to fly it, to American, Delta, Alitalia and Scandinavian Air Systems, the owner of Spanair. Nearly 1,200 were built in various configurations between 1980 and 1999, the year when Boeing, which had merged with McDonnell-Douglas two years earlier, decided to discontinue production and focus instead on its own short-range jet, the Boeing 737.
During its lifetime, the MD-80 family has had some high-profile problems:
– In 1987, an MD-82 crashed just outside the airport in Detroit, killing 156 people including two on the ground. The only survivor was a four-year-old girl, who was found strapped into her seat in the crash debris. The National Transportation Stabilization Board concluded that the pilots of the plane had incorrectly deployed the plane’s wing flaps, meaning the jet was not in the proper position to fly. A faulty warning system failed to alert the pilots to the problem.
– The left engine on a Delta Air Lines MD-88 failed on takeoff in Pensacola, Fla, in 1996, causing pieces of the engine to pierce the fuselage and penetrate the cabin, killing two of the plane’s 137 passengers.
– In January 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-83 crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Point Magu, Calif., killing 88 people. The pilot had declared an emergency and was trying to get to Los Angeles International Airport when the accident took place. The safety board said improper maintenance was to blame for the crash.
– The most recent attention paid to the plane was not crash related: Last spring, American canceled thousands of flights and grounded its 300 MD-80s to check that wiring bundles were properly secured inside the planes’ wheel wells. The groundings prompted a sparring match between the airline and the F.A.A., which American contended had unfairly changed the rules for how carriers should respond to safety directives.
Last week, the F.A.A. proposed civil penalties of $7.1 million against American for flying two MD-80s in December when it knew they were not airworthy. American said it disagreed with the finding and called the penalties “excessive.”