Flight Report: Delta MD-90 from Tucson to Atlanta

January 6, 2020

 

Happy to announce that flight reports will be resuming with increased frequency! After having a drought of flights due to school and work commitments, I'm happy to be sharing my latest airline reviews and reports with you. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for more reviews across both U.S. and international airlines!

 

Introduction

It was finally time to return to the University after spending 10 fantastic days at the observatories in Tucson, AZ. This time, instead of transferring through LAX again, I decided to take the cheapest option again, which was to travel back to Gainesville via Atlanta. This route is actually Delta's only route out of TUS operated by mainline instead of Delta Connection aircraft. During the summer of 2017, this route, which operated twice a day, was operated by McDonnell Douglas MD-90 aircraft, a rare variant of the highly successful DC-9 family. Since all of Delta's MD-90s are based out of hubs on the East Coast and in the Midwest, it's very rare to see one operating as far west as Tucson. If I am right, Tucson was the "westernmost" domestic destination for the MD-90 for Delta. However, at the time of this writing, the ATL-TUS route has seen an increase in capacity, with larger Boeing 737-900ER and refurbished Boeing 757-200 aircraft operating this route. These aircraft feature many more amenities for passengers, and are generally much comfortable than the "MadDog" that they are replacing (though it's always sad for AvGeeks to see an iconic aircraft go).

 

Delta is the world's only remaining operator of the MD-90, and expects to retire them by the mid-2020s, which means that these birds have quite a few years of life left in them. As of October 27, 62 aircraft remain in service, and one of the oldest birds (N902DA, msn 53382) was retired in 2017 to provide spare parts for the rest of the fleet. More than half of Delta's MD-90 fleet actually operated for Asian airlines, including Japan Airlines, EVA Air, and a plethora of Chinese airlines. In fact, McDonnell Douglas marked the MD-90 so aggressively in China that they set up an assembly line in SAIC (Shanghai), and proceeded to build two MD-90s there. Both of these aircraft are now in service with Delta, registered N964DN and N965DN respectively. This flight seemed like a great opportunity to get another ride on the "T-tails" before they're retired for good. 

 

Before The Flight

I stayed in the Four Points Tucson Airport during my time at the observatories there. It was situated right next to the airport, but was quite far from many of the observatories on the mountains surrounding the city of Tucson. TUS seemed to be a military base in addition to a civilian airport, as I constantly heard fighter jets conducting exercises over the airport when I was trying to sleep. Tucson is also the home of Pinal Airpark (MZJ), a popular site for aircraft retirements. MZJ hosts many retired aircraft by both domestic and international carriers, while the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base does the same to retired military aircraft. The desert environment here is perfect for preserving aircraft, due to the dry, non-corrosive weather. Even so, many aircraft here end up getting scrapped for spare parts. There's a small museum for visitors, which includes one of the first Boeing 787 prototypes (N787EX, painted in launch customer ANA's livery). 

 

On the morning of our flight, I had some breakfast at the hotel (which has a huge breakfast buffet, by the way) and ordered an airport shuttle for some of my fellow colleagues. The airport was a five minute walk from the hotel, or a one minute drive. Either way, we were lined up in the check-in queue just moments after leaving the hotel. There were just two Delta flights checking in right now (a CRJ-700 flight to Salt Lake City, and our flight), so the check-in queue was not crowded at all. I obtained my boarding pass via the kiosk, and checked a large suitcase in. Since I got TSA PreCheck again for this sector, I was through security and walking toward my gate in just four minutes. 

 

Delta flights depart from Concourse B, which at this time was quite empty. Some of my friends went to get some Pizza, while I just went to gate B2 and proceeded to read a book, since I wasn't that hungry. According to FlightRadar24, the aircraft had not arrived yet, and was scheduled for an on-time arrival to TUS. 

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a long and skinny object moving across of the tarmac and pulling into the gate. Today's flight would be operated by N906DA, one of the oldest MD-90s in Delta's fleet. Ship 9206 was delivered to Delta in July 1995. I would be boarding in zone 3, one of the last groups to board. I managed to get on the plane around 14 minutes before scheduled departure time. 

July 27, 2017

Delta Air Lines flight # 1240

TUS (Tucson International Airport) - ATL (Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport)

McDonnell Douglas MD-90-30 (N906DA)

Main Cabin - Seat 31A

Flight Time 03:59

 

Flight Experience

My seat was 31A, a window seat just behind the wing. Arranged in a 2-3 configuration (perfect for couples), these seats are some of the most basic in DL's fleet, and don't feature amenities such as winged headrests, IFE, and AC power/USB outlets like many of their newer mainline aircraft. Nonetheless, they were fine for a 3.5 hour flight. Furthermore, by this time all of Delta's aircraft offer streaming entertainment via wifi, which can be accessed on a computer or a mobile device. After doing some research, I discovered that these seats are most likely to be a "no-frills" version of the Zodiac 5715 seat, which has not been customized with amenities like in-flight entertainment, adjustable headrests, or footrests. The 5715 has a slightly slanted seat back, which was designed especially for the Panasonic eXLite Eco9i entertainment suite. You'll find a slightly wider version on the 767-300ER, with adjustable headrests and IFE (as these aircraft are optimized for transcontinental and international routes). Furthermore, the most recent version of the 5715 can be found on All Nippon Airways' 777-300ER, in a 3-4-3 arrangement with a tight 17.2 inches of seat width. 

Overhead bins were smaller than usual, but I was pleased to see that this MD-90 offered a vintage interior compared to today's retrofitted jets. The retro-style interior reminded me of flying when I was just a little kid, in the early 2000s. It was nothing like today's Sky Interior of Airspace by Airbus, and was a testament to what flying used to be like before airlines started to squeeze as much money as possible out of passengers. 

 

Legroom on this flight wasn't that bad, and the tray table was extendable as well. Furthermore, this aircraft featured overhead vents for all passengers. 

 

We pushed back at 20 minutes past noon, just 3 minutes before scheduled departure time. As we were pushed into our position on the tarmac. Both IAE V2525-D5 engines, rated at 28,000 pounds of thrust each, spooled up with a low-pitched hum. This engine is very similar to the V2500-A series used on many Airbus A320 family aircraft.

 

 

Flaps were extended shortly thereafter, and we began our taxi to runway 29 past the terminals. You could see the desert terrain of Tucson, with low bushes and the San Catalina mountains in the distance. While taxiing to the runway, you could also see a set of military fighter jets parked at the far end of the airport. 

 

Here's where the one thing that bothered me during the whole flight began. A mother was sitting behind me with two toddlers, one in her lap and one in the seat right behind me. Both children simply could not keep their mouths shut during the almost 4-hour long flight! Those kids weren't simply crying; they were screaming bloody murder and woke up many passengers when they were trying to sleep! The screaming sound literally penetrated through my noise cancelling headphones, while the noise from the V2525 engines didn't! Worst of all, the mother didn't discipline her kids at all and just shrugged it off when the FAs and other passengers asked her to keep the kids quiet! This was not Delta's fault by any means; they tried their best to provide a comfortable experience for the passengers, which I commend them for, but sometimes, there are unforeseen circumstances that are beyond the reach of the flight crew. 

 

We lined up with runway 29 and began a rolling takeoff. We did a semi-long takeoff roll, due to the heat and thin air at Tucson. Once in the air, however, we enjoyed a fast climbout, a signature quality of aircraft with tail-mounted engines. We made a left turn and flew past the San Catalina mountains, which I visited many times over my stay in Arizona, while setting a course for Atlanta. 

 

Once we climbed to our initial cruising altitude of 27,000 feet, which seems extremely low compared to most other aircraft, which can cruise up to 41,000 feet. The reason why the MD-90 rarely cruises above 30,000 feet is due to the fact that it has a relatively small wing for its size. Furthermore, the MD-90 has a stretched fuselage (over the MD-88), a tail stretch, and other improvements which added weight (instead of reducing weight) to the plane. The MD-88 also was limited to low cruising altitudes, so the same can be expected for the MD-90.

 

As the mountains gradually gave way to desert terrain, I got out my laptop and connected to the in-flight wifi. I was able to load a selection of entertainment via the fairly speedy GoGo wifi. Unfortunately, the streaming version of Delta Studio contains far less content that the seatback IFE version, unlike United's PDE streaming service, which offers the same selection as aircraft with the seatback screens. Only about 50 movies and TV shows were provided, though the selection itself was pretty good. Interestingly, Delta's MD-90s were originally intended to have personal in-flight entertainment screens at every seat; however, DL management eventually made the decision to not install those screens. My understanding is that these aircraft were fitted with the necessary equipment to support seatback screens when they were inducted into the fleet. There are still many rumors about installing seatback screens on these MD-90s, and it certaintly wouldn't hurt to do so, especially considering the fact that these aircraft are scheduled to stay in the fleet well into the next decade. Evidence of this plan can be seen in the seats themselves. If you look very closely at the back of the seat at eye level (while seated of course), you will notice a cutout for a 9-inch diagonal width screen, similar to the popular Panasonic Eco9i model installed on the majority of its domestic fleet. 

I also visited the lavatory at the back of the plane, which was much larger than "space-saving" cramped lavatories. The rear of the plane also features a tail cone that serves as one of the emergency exits. Instead of having a galley at the rear like most wing-mounted engine aircraft, McDonnell Douglas' tail-mounted engine aircraft have a tail cone that separates and deploys an emergency slide during evacuation procedures. 

I decided to watch Arrival (2016), a popular science fiction film that I had already seen once before in a theater. The quality of the video was great, and didn't have any hiccup issues (probably because so few people were using the wifi). We were cruising over Western Texas at this time. It was fascinating to watch the "natural IFE" as well, since the terrain gradually transformed from bare desert terrain to grass plains, and finally a lush forested landscape as we approached the East Coast. We even managed to fly directly over the sprawling city of Dallas, TX.

Things started to get interesting as we flew over Decatur, Mississippi. Due to thunderstorms in the Atlanta area, we were put into a holding pattern for over 40 minutes and almost diverted to Tallahassee as we started to eat in to the fuel reserves. I must say, the view during this time was not bad at all. After we exited the hold, the view was amazing, as this was right around sunset for much of the East Coast. We flew right past the airport (and downtown Atlanta), made a 180˚ turn to line up with runway 28, and landed about 30 minutes late. Since runway 28 is far from the terminals, we had a fairly long taxi until we parked at gate B31, at Concourse B. One thing I noticed about Delta's ATL operations is that each concourse seemed to be suited to a specific "class" of aircraft. For example, concourse B, where we were parked, was full of MD-88 and MD-90 jets. Just next door, Concourse A catered to mostly Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft, while Concourse C is the regional jet terminal, and Concourse E hosts many of Delta's widebody operations. 

You could really see the age of this aircraft in the cockpit. It was full of old-fashioned dials instead of the modern LED screens, and did not contain the atmosphere of a modern aircraft's cockpit. This was back in the day when many aircraft still required a fair amount of manual flying. It's not every day that you get to see a cockpit reminiscent of the golden age of flying. 

After spending a significant amount of time onboard the aircraft, I was released into Concourse B, where I met up with several of my colleagues for dinner at Asian Chao before our flight to Gainesville. 

 

Verdict 

This was a very enjoyable flight on the MD-90, a vintage aircraft that is incredibly hard to find on routes these days. In fact, Delta's MD-90s exclusively operate on routes throughout the East Coast and the Midwest; Tucson is its westernmost destination. I was fortunate enough to be on a flight with an extremely polite flight crew, including the first officer who showed me around the cockpit. Most of all, however, I believe that the flight crew handled the incident with the toddler screaming and kicking my seat extremely well; they were extremely professional and tried their best to ensure a comfortable passenger experience for us. In fact, one of the flight attendants cuddled one of the sleeping toddlers while the mother tried to calm the other one. The screaming baby was not Delta's fault, however. Except from this and the weather hold, this flight on the MD-90 was one of the most enjoyable that I've had with Delta, mostly due to the fact that these T-tails are extremely rare nowadays. Still, I hope to catch a few more flights on the MD-88 and MD-90 before they're gone for good.

 

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About Me

Hi! My name is Brian, and I am an avid traveller, aviation enthusiast, and airline reviewer based in New York City. 

Flight Level 360 is dedicated to all who are interested in the exotic world of aviation. Here, I publish articles mostly about news regarding airlines and the frequent-flyer world, as well as reports of trips I've undertaken previously.

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