31 Years Of The Iconic McDonnell Douglas MD-11 Trijet

Today marks 31 years since the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 performed its maiden flight. The trijet took to the skies for the first time on January 10th, 1990 would be introduced into service later that year with Finnair. Let’s take a look at the story of the widebody aircraft.

Alitalia Md-11 On Approach To Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, Asia
Alitalia held eight MD-11s and would fly them across the globe to destinations such as Hong Kong. Photo: Getty Images.

Taking it a step further

The plane was famously a derivative of the DC-10. It was 18.6 feet (5.6 meters) longer than its predecessor and could hold approximately 50 more passengers onboard. The jet was built in Long Beach, California, by a global network of subcontractors and suppliers.

Boeing, which took over production after the merger with McDonnell Douglas in the middle of the 1990s, highlights that the MD-11 was available in four variants. These models came in the form of passenger, all freighter, convertible freighter, and combi. The latter saw travelers and cargo sat on the main deck while there was additional freight stored in the deck below.

There were also proposals for a stretched version of the plane that could have gone up against the Airbus A380 in the form of the MD-11 LR. However, these plans didn’t come to fruition. Regardless, there were extended-range (ER) options on all of the available variants.

“Seating capacities on the standard airplane varied from 285 in a three-class arrangement to 410 in an all-economy configuration. Advances in aerodynamics, propulsion, aircraft systems, cockpit avionics and interior design contributed to the performance and operating economy of all MD-11 models,” Boeing shares on its website.

“Aerodynamic improvements included winglets and a redesigned wing trailing edge, a smaller horizontal tail with integral fuel tanks and an extended tailcone. These features reduced drag, saved fuel and added range.”

FInnair MD-11
Finnair was the first airline to introduce the plane and it held seven units in total. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons

Plenty of attention

The MD-11 program was officially launched after a special McDonnell Douglas board meeting in December 1986. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company said it received orders from 12 customers for a total of 52 units. That month, Alitalia placed a $1.5-billion order for six MD-11s and 10 MD-82s.

Other customers at the time include Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) with 12 British Caledonian Airways with nine and Japan’s Mitsui conglomerate with five. Federal Express was also reported to have ordered two MD-11s, showing hints of what the future would hold for the eventual shipping specialist.

The first MD-11 flight was initially planned to take place in March 1989. However, there were several issues with the production process, delaying the heavily anticipated event. Subsequently, just less than a year later, the plane made its maiden flight.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines held onto its MD-11 aircraft until near the middle of the last decade. Photo: RAF-YYC via Wikimedia Commons

New opportunities

The MD-11 played an important role for airlines to develop at the beginning of the 1990s. Notably, the likes of Delta Air Lines used them for expansion on long-haul transoceanic routes. The Atlanta-based carrier took delivery of its first of 17 units in December 1990. At the time of the plane’s arrival, former Delta chairman and CEO Ron Allen spoke about its potential. The company was keen to try out the aircraft’s range of 8,460 statute miles. It also had a speed of 543 mph and was powered by three Pratt & Whitney PW4460 engines.

“These will be among the first MD-11s to go into service and will allow Delta to continue growing in the Pacific,” Allen said, as shared by the Delta Flight Museum.

“With these leased aircraft, we can initiate MD-11 service in the Los Angeles-Tokyo route early in 1991, while we await the delivery of MD-11s previously ordered, the first of which will not be delivered until later in the year.”

174 MD-11s arrived at the facilities of over 20 different airlines across the globe by January 1998. They could be seen at over 100 airports in 55 nations. Moreover, during this period, they were operating on over 270 scheduled daily services. Notably, more than 2.7 million revenue flight-hours and 1.3 billion statute miles were conducted with the jets thanks to their feat of serving just under 70 million passengers.

A short-lasting buzz

Nonetheless, the MD-11 did not perform as well as its manufacturers would have hoped. The aircraft’s engines were designed to provide maximum efficiency in their thrust class with fuel burn reductions compared to other widebody trijets at the time. However, the plane ultimately didn’t meet the high expectations of airlines. Carriers quickly preferred powerhouses such as the Boeing 767, Boeing 777, and Airbus A330.

Breakthroughs with ETOPS approval helped twinjets to take over many of the routes that trijets would have traditionally conducted. For example, Delta Air Lines admitted that it stopped flying with the plane in favor of the 767 and 777.

The production cycle of the MD-11 ended only a decade after the plane’s debut. Boeing ended its production program in 2000 after a total of 200 units were completed. Subsequently, the last delivery of the aircraft occurred on February 22nd, 2001.

Delta Air Lines MD-11
Delta held 17 MD-11 units between 1990 and 2004 and the length of the carrier’s relationship with the plane isn’t much longer than the production run of the type. Photo: Getty Images

Still has a role to play

Only a handful of airlines continue to operate the MD-11 today. Moreover, they are primarily used for cargo services. Current holders of the type include Federal Express, Lufthansa Cargo, United Parcel Service, and Western Global Airlines.

The globe is more reliant than ever on cargo, and the MD-11 helps to transport important goods with the likes of FedEx, which holds 59 units of the type. Photo: Getty Images

Altogether, trijets are increasingly becoming a sight of the past with twinjets continuing to dominate the skies. However, it is great to see that the MD-11 still has an important purpose in society with cargo operations becoming more vital over the last year.

What are your thoughts about the McDonnell Douglas MD-11? Did you ever fly on the aircraft over the years? Let us know what you think of the model in the comment section.