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Why are iconic MD-80 jets being converted to freighters?

Single-aisle plane still has value as cargo hauler, experts say

Aeronautical Engineers Inc. is converting MD-80s, such as this one, for USA Jet Airlines. (Photo: AEI)

Many Boeing and Airbus passenger aircraft types, such as the 737-800, are being converted to freighters these days to extend their useful lifespan. But why are some carriers opting for vintage MD-80s from another era that nobody sees anymore?

The planes aren’t sleek, burn more fuel than newer planes and can be challenging for pilots to fly. Plus, the rear-mounted engines were very noisy for those sitting in the back.

It turns out these classic twinjets, known as the Super 80, are workhorses and do a good job hauling freight in certain applications.

USA Jet Airlines, a subsidiary of domestic freight broker Ascent Global Logistics, last week signed a contract with Aeronautical Engineers Inc. to reconfigure three McDonnell Douglas 88s into cargo aircraft.

USA Jet already operates one MD-88 and could have seven in its fleet if all options are exercised, said Robert Convey, AEI’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, in an email.

Modification on the first aircraft is starting this month, followed by the second and third aircraft in May and August, respectively, AEI announced. The addition of a cargo door and other structural changes are being done by Commercial Jet, licensed to install the conversion kit designed by AEI, at its Dothan, Alabama, facility.

The MD-80 was conceived as a stretch variant of the short-haul DC-9. Its first flight was in 1980. There were 1,191 MD-80s built in Long Beach, California, and delivered over 19 years, according to Boeing, which acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997. The MD-88, which launched in 1986, is an upgraded version of the MD-80.

Convey said USA Jet purchased the MD-88s from Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL), which made its last flight with the plane last summer. Delta still had 47 of the 149-seat aircraft in its fleet at the start of 2020 but moved up the retirement schedule when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out air travel and led to massive industry cost-cutting. 

American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) had 360 MD-80s at one point and retired the final 26 aircraft in September 2019. 

Convey said AEI has delivered 21 MD-80 conversions, two are in progress and six have been ordered.

Most operators use the MD-80 freighter to carry automotive parts from Mexico to the U.S., but it is also used in Alaska for general freight and fish, he said. Ascent has automotive clients such as Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) and General Motors (NYSE: GM), according to its website. USA Jet specializes in on-demand transport within North America.

The MD-80’s appeal is cost. All-cargo airlines can buy, convert, perform maintenance and paint one of the aircraft for less than $5 million, half the cost of a Boeing 737-400 conversion that carries the same amount of freight, Convey said.

“It’s a fantastic freighter,” Stephen Fortune, the founder of an eponymous aviation consulting firm specializing in conversions, said in an interview.

“It’s a strong airplane. It’s got a low deck height. You can stand next to the fuselage and look into the deck, whereas a 757 is well over your head. So you can actually load the airplane from a pickup truck if you wanted to,” Fortune said.

Many MD-80s are in long-term storage and have plenty of use left on their engines. The main reason the MD-80 hasn’t been more successful in air cargo is that its cross-section is too narrow, preventing it from carrying standard “A”-type containers, he added.

Instead, the plane accommodates a dozen non-customary 88-by-108-inch containers or pallets.

In related news, AEI on Monday announced it had received an order from Aviation Holdings III Investments for three additional Boeing 737-800 freighter conversions. Aviation Holdings has ordered a total of eight retrofits. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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One Comment

  1. L

    Flew that pictured airplane just this morning. Still going strong! Though I have to ask, why no mention of Everts air cargo? That’s who’s picture you used…

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]