End of an era: Onboard the Final Commercial Passenger Flight of the MD-11


The era of widebody tri-jet commercial passenger service came to a close this weekend. Early Sunday morning KLM flight 672 touched down at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, the final landing of the MD-11 type in scheduled operation. And with that landing – as well as the retirement earlier this year of Biman Bangladesh Airlines’ final DC-10 – the widebody tri-jet is history. KLM operated the flight from Montreal to Amsterdam as regular scheduled service so it was not only aviation junkies on board, though that group was certainly well represented among the passengers.

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The KLM MD-11 “Audrey Hepburn” arrives in Montreal on her penultimate flight

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KLM MD-11-2Perhaps too well represented, actually. KLM and the Montreal airport celebrated the final flight with a party at the departure gate. There were drinks and cupcakes for all the passengers plus a photo station providing pictures of passengers with the MD-11. And there were the scores of passengers on board solely to be part of the historic event. The crowd glued to the window as PH-KCE “Audrey Hepburn”, completed in September 1994, pulled in to the gate was a mix of crew and passengers alike. Of course, there were also the “other” passengers who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Several of them came over to see what the commotion was about and quickly started to blend in with the aficionados while others simply enjoyed the cupcakes.

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My “golden ticket” to be a part of the final flight celebration

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The crew posing with “Audrey Hepburn” outside prior to the flight

The celebration continued throughout boarding (the Purser reminded everyone to pay special attention to the safety video “as this is the last time it will ever be shown”) and through to the in-flight service. Prior to the regular meal every passenger was offered a glass of Champagne and a petit four to keep the mood light and fun. During the service one of the flight attendants commented on the upbeat nature of the flight, “Normally we are so tired because it is the middle of the night. With the celebration everyone is so happy and awake. It is much more fun.”

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The flight attendants were chipper throughout the flight, even when reminding us to tone down the celebration

As for the AvGeek crew, there were plenty of familiar faces; about a dozen on board were also on the final commercial DC-10 flight with Biman Bangladesh Airlines earlier in the year. But this was a much larger crowd than that trip and attracted so many new faces as well. Most came from the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe but Americans were also well represented and at least one fan came from Taipei for the celebration. And some are far more dedicated to the craft than others. Rien Moerland is one of the passengers from Holland who made the journey over to Canada in order to be on the final MD-11 flight. He is perhaps the most committed of MD-11 fans; his left bicep bears a large tattoo of the aircraft in KLM colors.

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Rien Moerland is one of the most dedicated MD-11 fans; that’s a tattoo of the plane on his left arm

Jose I. Soria was another of the AvGeek crowd, though rather different than the rest. Mostly because Jose is a month shy of his twelfth birthday. He and his mother made the trip from Spain to Montreal as a birthday present, including a side trip to do some planespotting in New York City. About half way through the flight he and I spoke (fortunately his English is spectacular because my Spanish is not) about his admittedly brief history of AvGeek-dom. It started with plane pictures while on holidays and has slowly expanded to a full-on AvGeek obsession earlier this year. He participates actively in online communities and seems to have a long future of AvGeek-dom yet to come.

The rest of the in-flight experience was typical KLM. A full dinner was served and then the cabin lights were dimmed to allow passengers a short night’s rest. Unlike most transatlantic redeye flights this one saw many passengers not even bother to try to sleep. This was an AvGeek party and that attitude remained present even while the “normal” passengers dozed. And there were more than a few incidents where the party was a bit more rowdy than the typical in-flight experience such that the flight attendants intervened. Roughly 90 minutes before landing a small breakfast (muffin & yogurt) was served. Most of us hadn’t actually slept yet and it was only 12:30am back on the east coast of the USA and Canada so we were still going strong.

Extra: In-Flight Review KLM MD-11 from August, 2014

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Sweets and bubbles for everyone on board!

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The MD-11 arguably should never have really been flying. It was something of a copycat design mimicking and theoretically slightly improving on the DC-10 but far from a commercial success. It never quite delivered on the range or payload capacities originally promised and the manufacturing cycle was cut short well before enough were built for McDonnell Douglas to break even on the investment to build the type. Most of the aircraft were retired from passenger service well before they were 20 years old, far younger than most other aircraft types. Ironically, the MD-11 only lasted flew in passenger service from 1991-2014 as compared to its its DC-10 predecessor that flew from 1971-2014 in passenger service.

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Some of the crew awaiting the arrival of our ride home; they were arguably more sentimental about the aircraft retirement than the AvGeeks on board

And yet the MD-11 is still somewhat beloved by passengers. Perhaps it is because of the distinctive silhouette it cuts with the tail-mounted engine. Or because the cabin is rather wide but still fitted in a 3-3-3 configuration which is rather comfortable, especially compared to the newer 777 layouts at 10-abreast or even their 9-abreast layouts. Of course, the higher operating costs not offset by such passenger adoration and KLM is now joining the rest of the industry in finally retiring the type after 20 years of service. And one spectacular farewell party at 37,000 feet. There will be a final short enthusiast flight on November 11th from Amsterdam Schipol, but after nearly 25 years in service for the type and 20 years for “Audrey Hepburn”, this really was the end.

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Pre-flight cupcakes; that’s how you know it is a real party!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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