With recent news of Lufthansa Cargo retiring their MD-11s from service, it made me wonder why the type disappeared from passenger service so quickly. Though never getting the opportunity to fly on one, I always liked the MD-11, and trijets in general.
Going back to 1982, McDonnell Douglas knew it needed a replacement for the DC-10 as it was receiving no new orders. In 1985, the MD-11 was being discussed with current DC-10 customers. This new aircraft promised a longer fuselage, improved avionics, and greater range compared to its predecessor. Despite this, by its launch the following year, it only had 50 firm orders from 10 airlines.
Delays in the manufacturing and certification processes delayed the first flight until 1990. To make matters worse, launch customer JAT Yugoslav Airlines canceled their order, forcing McDonnell Douglas to look for a new customer. Finnair took delivery of the MD-11 in 1990, completing the first revenue service the same year. American Airlines, which was a big DC-10 user, was unhappy with the performance of the MD-11, and discarded them as replacement aircraft became available.
A series of high-profile crashes followed, bringing into question the safety of the MD-11. Most of these incidents, involving FedEx, China Airlines, and Lufthansa Cargo aircraft, happened during approach and landing. It was discovered that due to the aircraft’s design, fuel tanks in the aft gave the MD-11 a center of gravity further back than any other airliner. This gave the aircraft a fast approach speed, making it more difficult to land, especially in a crosswind.
These flaws left a big impact on the aircraft’s reputation, leading many airlines to remove them from their fleets. Additionally, a 1997 merger meant that Boeing now owned the MD-11 design, as well as the 747 and 777. All of these aircraft filled similar roles, so the decision was made to drop the MD-11 from production.
Almost all MD-11s still flying today operate for FedEx, UPS, and a few other cargo carriers. However, more efficient aircraft, like the 777 freighter, are quickly replacing it. As these remaining aircraft fade from service, the big trijets will become part of aviation history.