The Rise And Fall Of The McDonnell Douglas MD-11

The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was one of the most visually striking aircraft of its time. Developed from the earlier DC-10, its distinctive three-engine configuration helped it to stand out wherever it flew. While it promised a lot, the MD-11, particularly in its passenger configuration, failed to live up to expectations. This is the story of its rise and fall.

Alitalia MD-11 Getty
Alitalia flew its MD-11s to iconic airports like Hong Kong Kai Tak. Photo: Getty Images

Developed from the DC-10

The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 made its first flight more than 31 years ago, in January 1990. However, its story can be traced back significantly further to a previous McDonnell Douglas trijet design. We are, of course, talking about the famous DC-10. This aircraft first flew in August 1970, around the same time as other first-generation widebodies like the Boeing 747.

While the DC-10 sold 386 units, as well as 60 examples of the KC-10 tanker variant, McDonnell Douglas was reportedly considering new derivatives as early as the mid-1970s. At this time, it had its eye on stretched versions of the existing DC-10-10 and DC-10-30 variants. However, accidents involving the DC-10 began to worsen its reputation.

With no fresh DC-10 orders coming in, McDonnell Douglas decided to rename the new derivative as the MD-11 in 1984. It eventually launched the program in December 1986, garnering 52 firm orders alongside a further 40 options. Assembly began in 1988.

Northwest Airlines, McDonnell Douglas DC 10
The MD-11 was a development of the DC-10 (pictured), which first flew in 1970. Photo: Getty Images.

Great promise

Amid the negative publicity that surrounded the DC-10 following a series of high-profile accidents, it was important for McDonnell Douglas to emphasize the MD-11’s improvements. A key feature was its two-person glass cockpit. Such a digital setup eliminates the need for a flight engineer onboard, saving airlines space as well as money.

McDonnell Douglas also fitted the MD-11 with winglets following research that it undertook in conjunction with NASA. The design boasted a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) that was 14% higher than the DC-10’s. Meanwhile, its fuselage was 11% longer. Clocking in at 61.6 meters, the new design could typically hold 298 passengers across three classes.

Then there was the matter of range. The -30 had been the DC-10’s best performer, with a range of 9,600 km (5,200 NM). However, the new derivative’s specifications boasted an impressive 12,455 km (6,725 NM) of range. All in all, things were shaping up well for McDonnell Douglas, as the company looked to put the DC-10’s troubles behind it.

McDonnell Douglas produced both passenger and cargo MD-11s. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Entry into service

As we have established, the MD-11 made its first flight in January 1990. By the end of that year, it had also entered service with Finnair, doing so on December 20th. Data from shows that the Finnish flag carrier went on to fly seven passenger-carrying MD-11s. The Nordic oneworld member also flew two cargo-configured MD-11Fs.

In its early years, the MD-11 had a unit cost of around $100 million ($209 million today). The first MD-11s actually cost more than this to produce, despite being similar to the existing DC-10. Indeed, the early production costs of $120-150 million meant that, to begin with, the type was a loss-maker. However, these costs were planned to drop to $90 million over time.

Finnair MD-11
Finnair introduced the MD-11 in December 1990. Photo: JetPix via Wikimedia Commons

Variants and largest operators

McDonnell Douglas produced just 200 MD-11s between 1988 and 2000. This represents a considerably lower figure than the company managed for the previous DC-10 family, the reasons for which will become evident. Of these, the majority (131 examples) belonged to the standard passenger-carrying variant of the MD-11.

Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas also produced 53 cargo-carrying examples of the MD-11F. There were also several far less numerous variants, such as the MD-11C. Just five examples of this ‘Combi’ aircraft were produced, the same figure that the extended range MD-11ER managed. There were also six ‘Convertible Freighter’ examples of the MD-11CF.

Aer Lingus World Airways MD-11
Aer Lingus leased a World Airways MD-11 on four occasions. Photo: Sunil Gupta via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of passenger-carrying MD-11s, the largest all-time operator was former Brazilian carrier Varig, with 24 examples. Swissair was close behind with 20, followed by American Airlines on 19. Meanwhile, Delta flew 17 MD-11s. The MD-11F remains reasonably widespread today. The largest current fleet belongs to FedEx, with 59 examples.

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Unable to meet targets

A key factor in the MD-11’s comparatively low production output, and a production cycle that lasted just 12 years, was its inability to meet targets for given metrics. The most crucial of these were range and fuel burn, where it was soon found to be underperforming.

American Airlines MD-11
American Airlines withdrew its last MD-11 in 2002. The carrier had been dissatisfied with its performance. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

This prompted American Airlines to express its dissatisfaction with the 19 trijets that it had received. The Fort Worth-based US legacy carrier and oneworld founding member claimed that there were issues with its airframe and engines. Singapore Airlines canceled its 20-aircraft MD-11 order in favor of the Airbus A340-300 due to the problems.

So how much did the MD-11 miss its range targets by? As we have established, its specified range was an impressive 12,455 km (6,725 NM). This could be as high as 13,000 km (7,000 NM) with a 28,000 kg payload. However, in reality, the underperforming MD-11 could only manage this if its payload dropped to 22,000 kg, a reduction of more than 20%. If the aircraft did fly with a full payload, this restricted its range to just 12,025 km (6,493 NM).

The Rise And Fall Of The McDonnell Douglas MD-11
KLM was the final passenger user of the MD-11, retiring the type in 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

No longer flying passengers

These struggles, as well as internal competition from Boeing products after it took over McDonnell Douglas, caused production of the MD-11 to cease at the turn of the century. It soon experienced something of a fall from grace in terms of use on passenger services. That being said, it wasn’t until 2014 that KLM retired the final passenger-carrying example.

The MD-11 has found a strong niche in the domain of airfreight. The type remains a popular cargo aircraft today, with ch-aviation listing 108 as still being active. While these trijets’ days are numbered at certain carriers, such as Lufthansa, the longevity of cargo aircraft means that the type likely won’t disappear from the skies entirely for a while yet.

What do you make of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11? Did you ever fly on one of these iconic trijets? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!