Commercial Airlines And The MD-11

McDonnell Douglas launched the MD-11 programme on December 30, 1986, after the Long Beach manufacturer had commitments for 52 firm orders plus 40 options on three variants – Passenger, Combi and Freight. 

Nine commercial airlines had signed up for the new trijet – Alitalia (AZ), British Caledonia (BR), Dragonair (KA), Finnair (AY), Korean Air (KE), SAS Scandinavian Airlines (SK), Swissair (SR), Thai Airways International (TG) and Varig (RG).

The MD-11 operated its maiden flight on January 10, 1990. (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

However, orders from KA, SK, Union de Transports Aériens – UTA (UT), and an undisclosed customer were cancelled by 1988.

After various production issues and problems surrounding the airliner’s range and fuel burn performance, It entered service with Finnair on December 20, 1990, between Helsinki (HEL) and Tenerife (TFS). 

Finnair’s maiden MD-11 being handed over at an official ceremony at MD’s Long Beach plant. (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Here we look at the commercial airlines that ordered and those airlines that actually operated the MD-11 over the years, until the last passenger example was retired by KLM (KL) in 2014.

Aer Lingus (EI)

Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus (EI) wet-leased a World Airways (WO) MD-11 between May and December 1998. The jet was used to supplement its Airbus A330-300s on transatlantic services while it awaited the arrival of its Airbus A330-200s. EI used the airframe again between May and September 2001.

The aircraft was N272WA and named St. Kilian/Cilian after the Irish monk and Bishop. Both times the aircraft wore Aer Lingus’ full-colour scheme leading it to be nicknamed ‘The Pickle’ by its flight crews.

Aero Lloyd (YP)

The German charter carrier Aero Lloyd (YP) ordered two MD-11s for delivery in 1992. The order, made with the Swiss ADO Finance Company, also included options for two further airframes. 

The trijets would be used for charter work to the United States and the Far East. Sadly, plans for long-haul expansion were never realised, and the order was cancelled in 1992. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Air ALM/ALM Antillean Airlines (LM)

ALM (LM) was the national carrier of the Netherlands Antilles. After KLM (KL) ended its relationship with the airline on its Amsterdam (AMS) to Curaçao (CUR) flights, LM utilised a CityBird (H2) MD-11 to operate the service twice weekly between December 2000 and March 2001. The aircraft remained in full H2 livery without additional titles. 

AirAsia (AK)

Established originally as a full-service airline in 1996, AirAsia (AK) wet-leased a pair of MD-11s from WO during March and April 1999 to be used on Hadj pilgrim flights between Kuala Lumpur Subang Airport (SZB) and Jeddah (JED).

The aircraft, N277WA and N278WA, wore basic ‘AirAsia’ titles on a full white fuselage while the white ‘Tabung Aji’ title and logo of the Malaysian Hadj foundation within a black square were placed on the tail fin. 

Air Europe (AE)

In 1990, London Gatwick-based Air Europe (AE) became the launch customer for the Rolls-Royce Trent-powered McDonnell Douglas MD-11 when a firm order was placed for six examples and options on a further 12, with deliveries due to start in 1993. 

The aircraft would be used to launch year-round scheduled flights to Canada, the US, Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, so confident was the management that they would receive the licences to operate these flights, that a pair of tickets for the MD-11 inaugural service to Australia was raffled off at that year’s Christmas party.

Following the bankruptcy of parent organisation, the International Leisure Group (ILG), Air Europe Ltd. ceased operations on March 8 1991. The airline’s demise led to the cancellation of the pending MD-11 orders and options. Two airframes had been pre-registered as G-OALM and G-MDII. Both airframes were subsequently taken up by Delta Air Lines (DL), albeit without the RR engines.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Air Outre Mer (IW)

Air Outre Mer (IW) was founded in 1989 to begin operations from the French overseas island of Réunion utilising a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30. In June 1989, the airline ordered four PW4460- powered MD-11 s for delivery during 1994 and 1995 with options on a further four.

In January 1992, the airline merged with Minerve (IW). The name Air Outre Mer was changed to AOM French Airlines. The result of the merger was a total order of seven MD-11s. However, none of these orders was taken up. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Air Namibia (SW)

Namibian national carrier Air Namibia (SW) operated a pair of MD-11s (V5-NMD and V5-NMC). Both aircraft were former Swissair (SR) examples and were utilised from August 2004 until September 2006. They were then converted to freighters and operated by FedEx (FX). 

Still wearing its former SR registration. (image: Rolf Wallner (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Air Zaire (QC)

Air Zaire (QC), originally known as Air Congo before the Democratic Republic of the Congo became the Republic of Zaire in 1971, ordered two MD-11s for delivery in September 1992 and November 1993 to replace its DC-10s. However, the order was cancelled, and the aircraft, serial numbers 48529 and 48530, were never built. 

Alitalia (AZ)

Long time customer of Douglas, Alitalia (AZ) had operated the DC-10 for several years and became one of the launch customers for the MD-11 when it placed a US$1.5 billion order for six MD-11s (plus 10 MD-82s) in December 1986.

AZ was the first and only customer for the MD-11 Combi, and five examples of this version, plus three all-passenger variants, were delivered between November 1991 and June 1994. General Electric GE CF6-80C2D1F engines powered all eight airframes. 

I-DUPE was the first MD-11 Combi to be delivered to AZ. (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

The aircraft was configured with 30 ‘Magnifica’ Business Class seats on both the Combi and full passenger-only variants. Meanwhile, economy was split between 174 in the Combi and 253 in the passenger-only. 

Because AZ decided to deliver MD-11 (I-DUPU) early in August 1992, the aircraft was delivered by the manufacturer with a bare metal fuselage with regular ‘Alitalia’ titles applied on the upper fuselage and the company’s logo on the winglets. The tail section, however, was painted in full colours.

In a bid to turn around its financial performance, the airline founded a new low-cost company within a company in 1996, dubbed ‘Alitalia Team.’ All of the airline’s MD-11s were transferred over to the unit. 

AZ retired its last MD-11 in November 2003 after the type was replaced by the Boeing 777.  

(Image: contri from Yonezawa-Shi, Yamagata, JapanCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

American Airlines (AA)

After being one of the launch customers for the DC-10, along with United Airlines (UA), it seemed apparent that American Airlines (AA) would order the MD-11. And in February 1989, this became a reality when the carrier placed a firm order for eight of the type with options on a further 42. 

AA was subsequently able to take early delivery of three aircraft ordered by British Caledonian (BR) and cancelled following BR’s takeover by British Airways (BA). Due to contractual obligations, these airframes were refurbished at Marshall’s of Cambridge, UK.

(Image: contri from Yonezawa-Shi, Yamagata, JapanCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The first MD-11 arrived on February 1, 1991, and a further four aircraft were delivered that year.

However, AA became one of the earliest carriers to express their disappointment over the type’s performance, with the airline’s then CEO Robert Crandall stating he was “very unhappy” with the performance of the jet. Excessive fuel burn experienced during proving flights, resulting in range deficiency and system malfunctions, led AA to ground its first aircraft and delay delivery of further examples until McDonnell Douglas corrected all problems. 

AA’s examples, dubbed ‘Luxury Liners,’ were all powered by the GE CF6-80C2D1F engines and originally had a three-class cabin layout, seating 16 first, 66 business and 163 economy passengers. 

Although AA changed eleven options into firm orders, the 19th and last aircraft was delivered in September 1993. By this point, the fate of the MD-11 in the airline’s fleet had been sealed. All aircraft would be taken over by FedEx (FX) and converted to MD-11Fs, the first arriving in January 1996. Its final example was withdrawn from the fleet in November 2001.

(Image: American Airlines)

Avianca (AV)

Colombian flag carrier Avianca (AV) utilised a World Airways (WO) MD-11 (N278WA) between December 14, 1998, and January 28, 1999. The type was used during the busy holiday season to operate the Bogota (BOG) to New York (JFK) route to cater for the sizeable Colombian ex-pat community in New York.

(Image: Source Unknown)

British Airways/British Caledonia (BA/BR)

When British Airways (BA) took over British Caledonian (BR) in April 1988, it inherited the latter’s order for three MD-11s which BR had placed on December 3, 1986, weeks before the programme had been officially launched. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

BA did go on to consider several options regarding placing the MD-11 into service. However, the airline decided to opt for the Boeing 767-300ER, which joined the fleet in 1990, coincidentally when the delivery of the three MD-11s was due. 

However, McDonnell Douglas went on to envisage BA as a potential launch customer for tits MD-12X project (more on that soon), conceived as a direct competitor to the Boeing 747-400 and 777. However, MD lost out to Boeing again when BA ordered the 777 in 1991.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

China Airlines (CI)

China Airlines (CI) ordered four Pratt & Whitney PW4460 powered MD-11s, delivered between October 1992 and December 1993. It also operated a fifth airframe (N489GX), originally leased from GATX in September 1992 until February 1993, and then again on a four-year lease which ended in October 1997. Several examples were leased to subsidiary Mandarin Airlines (AE).

The airline’s MD-11s were configured with 34 ‘Dynasty’ business class and 270 in economy. 

On August 22, 1999, CI lost one of its MD-11 (B-150) following a hard landing at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport (HKG) during a tropical storm. The aircraft carried the Mandarin Airlines markings but was operating for CI at the time. Of the 315 people on board, 312 survived, and three were killed. It was the first fatal accident at the new Hong Kong International airport since it opened in July 1998. The accident was subsequently blamed on pilot error.

The airline replaced its MD-11s with the Airbus A340-300, and the last example left the fleet in 2001.

(Image: Manuel NegrerieCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

China Eastern Airlines (MU)

The airline was an early customer for the MD-11 and placed an order for five passenger and one freighter aircraft in January 1989. The aircraft were delivered between 1991 and 1993, allowing China Eastern (MU) to expand its passenger services to Europe and the USA. Early destinations included Brussels, Chicago, Los Angeles, Madrid and Seattle. 

All aircraft were delivered with P&W PW4460 engines. The passenger aircraft were configured to seat 44 first and 270 economy-class passengers.

The last example left the fleet in 2003 after being replaced by the Airbus A340.

B-2173 was delivered in 1992. (Image: Alan EdwardsCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

China Southern Airlines (CZ)

The airline was established in July 1988 after the restructuring of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) Airlines. 

China Southern (CZ) hoped to commence international operations and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to acquire six MD-11s in the same month. Serial numbers 48462 through 48467 were allocated. However, the deal did not materialise, and the aircraft were never built. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

CityBird (H2)

CityBird (H2) was a Belgian low-fare scheduled airline founded by Victor Hasson in 1996 and was a subsidiary of City Hotels. The airline received its first MD-11 on December 13, 1996, but operations did not commence until March 1997. The airframe was subsequently leased to STAR Europe (SE) during this period. 

The carrier also leased three MD-11s from World Airways (WO). N271WA and N273WA were both operated on a short-term lease. N280WA was with H2 from June 1997 until March 1998, when the airline’s second MD-11 was delivered. A third example joined the fleet in April 1998. 

CityBird had an eye-catching livery. (Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

CityBird also placed orders with MD for two MD-11 freighters in July 1997 for delivery in December 1998 and January 1999. The airframes were to be used on dedicated charter services to Asia, South America and the USA. However, the aircraft were never delivered, and two Airbus A300C4-605Rs were used instead. 

Two of the carrier’s MD-11 had GE engines, while one was powered by the P&W PW4460. Two airframes – OO-CTS and OO-CTC – were leased to Sabena (SN) in April and May 1998, respectively, and operated for the Belgian flag carrier until March 2001.

The MD-11 operated by the airline had a two-class 371-seat configuration, 36 ‘Royal Eagle’ business and 335 ‘Colibri’ economy passengers. 

CityBird ceased MD-11 operations at the end of April 2001, and the airline ceased operations in October of that year.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Crossair (LX)

The former Swiss regional carrier and part of the SAirGroup leased a 257-seat MD-11 from partner Swissair (SR) from June to October 1997. The airframe was used on the carrier’s weekly service between Zurich (ZRH) and Palma de Mallorca (PMI), replacing the usual MD-83. The aircraft remained in Swissair colours. 

Delta Air Lines (DL)

On September 22, 1988, Delta (DL) signed an order for nine MD-11s with options on-a further 31 aircraft., becoming the US launch customer. Delta would use the type to replace its ageing Lockheed L-1011s on transpacific routes. Altogether 15 aircraft from this order would be delivered between March 1992 and February 1998. 

Delta’s ‘Widget’ livery. (Image: Ken FieldingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, two aircraft, fin 453 and fin 454, initially destined for Air Europe (AE), were leased from Mitsui & Company, enabling DL to commence MD-11 operations early, thus becoming the second airline to place the aircraft in scheduled passenger service. Indeed, according to the Delta Flight Museum, the first MD-11 flight departed Atlanta (ATL) for Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) on February 5, 1991. 

The two leased aircraft, powered by GE engines, remained in service until December 1993. DL selected the P&W PW4460 engine for its MD-11 fleet. 

Wearing the airlines “interim” livery is N801DE at Manchester Airport. (Image: Ken FieldingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 248-seat jets originally featured a three-class layout with 16 in First, 53 in business and 179 in economy. From 1999 the cabin was configured with seating for 50 Business and 210 or 219 economy passengers. 

Delta was the Official Airline of the 1996 Olympic Games, and the airline unveiled ‘Centennial Spirit,’ a new MD-11 jet (N812DE) delivered to the airline on April 8, 1996. The MD paint shop staff painted it in a commemorative colour scheme prior to delivery. Centennial Spirit transported the Olympic Flame on the 7,000-mile journey from Athens, Greece, to Los Angeles, the site of the 1984 Olympics, for the start of a torch relay to the 1996 Games site in Atlanta.

Delta’s ‘Centennial Spirit’ jet. (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

The airline’s relationship with the MD-11 lasted only a short time, preferring the Boeing 767 and 777 models. The last DL MD-11 flight occurred on January 1, 2004, from Tokyo to Atlanta (ATL). 

The final livery worn by the MD-11 was the short-lived ‘Colors in Motion.’ (Image: Ken FieldingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

El Al (LY)

El Al Israel Airlines (LY) boosted its long-haul fleet when it leased an MD-11ER (N278WA) from World Airways (WO) between June and October 1998. The aircraft was used on flights between Tel Aviv (TLV) and the United States. 

During 1999 and 2000, the carrier leased another WO MD-11 – N277WA.

N278WA in basic El Al colours. (Image: Aero IcarusCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

EVA Air (BR)

Taiwanese carrier EVA Air (BR) was founded in 1989 and immediately ordered several MD-11s. It received its first example in 1992. 

A total of twelve MD-11s, three passenger and nine freighter variants, were delivered between August 1994 and August 1999. The passenger variants were later converted to freighters.

Powered by the GE CF6-80C2D1F engines, the aircraft was flown in a 24 ‘Super Class’, 83 ‘Evergreen Deluxe’ and 168 economy seating arrangement. 

The airline retired its last passenger example in 2003, although it kept its freighters flying until 2015.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Finnair (AY)

Finnair (AY) was the launch customer for the MD-11 with an order for four aircraft. The type would replace its DC-10s and expand the carriers growing Euope-Asia connection after becoming the first Western airline to fly non-stop between Europe and China in 1988.

It received its maiden airframe OH-LGA on December 7, 1990. The GE CF6-80C2D1F powered aircraft was put into service on December 20, flying between Helsinki (HEL) and Tenerife (TFS). 

Finnair’s early Moomin scheme. (image: JetPix (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

One-off paint schemes were also applied to MD-11 OH-LGC, including a publicity campaign for Japanese tourists with the livery of the famous ‘Moomin’ cartoon characters. In 1995 the aircraft also adorned a special Christmas scheme showing Santa Claus with his sleigh on the forward fuselage. Other aircraft in the fleet displayed a small Santa Claus sticker beside the second port side entry door. 

The MD-11 was finally retired on February 23, 2010, when OH-LGG touched down from Delhi (DEL). Its seven airframes had served the company well for almost 20 years, flying some 400,000 hours, landing more than 50,000 times and transporting 14 million passengers.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Garuda Indonesia (GA)

Indonesian flag carrier Garuda (GA) was looking to expand its network and ordered six MD-11s in 1989. Three aircraft, which carried Irish registrations, were delivered in 1991 and 1992. The remaining airframes were delivered in 1993 on direct lease from MD.

Powered by the GE CF6-80C2D1F engines, the jets had a three-class cabin configuration that included seating for 12 first, 53 business and 235 economy passengers. 

The airline also took delivery of three MD-11ERs from December 1996 to November 1997 after its first three airframes were returned to their lessors. However, financial issues in the region led the airline to return all six airframes by the end of July 1998. Garuda did go on to lease several MD-11s from World Airways (WO) to conduct pilgrim flights to Mecca.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Ghana Airways (GH)

From October 1994 until March 1995, Ghana Airways (GH) operated an MD-11 (N280WA) on lease from WO and utilised on the carriers Accra (ACC) to New York (JFK) link. 

(Image: Torsten Maiwald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Japan Air Lines (JL)

Japan Airlines – JAL evaluated the Airbus A330/A340 and MD-11 to replace its DC-10 fleet. A decision was made in March 1990 when the airline signed a deal for ten airframes with options on ten more. The first MD-11 (JA8580) joined on May 11, 1993, and the remaining nine P&W-powered jets arrived between November 1993 and March 1997. But the ten options were not taken up. 

JAL’s MD-11s were named after endangered bird species and dubbed the ‘J Bird’ with the title painted on the tail engine. The bird motifs and names were placed on the fuselage, with the motifs repeated on the inside and outside of the winglets. 

JAL’s ‘J Birds.’ (Image: Japan Airlines)

In November 2000, JAL announced that the MD-11 would be retired and replaced by the Boeing 767 and 777 after signing an agreement with Boeing to take on the airframes and convert them into freighters. 

The last JAL MD-11 (JA8582) left the fleet on October 12, 2004, after operating the final flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to Tokyo (NRT).

(Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jugoslovenski Aerotransport – JAT (JU)

JAT (JU) was looking to expand its network and replace its ageing DC-10 and Boeing 707 fleet in the late 1980s and was evaluating the MD-11, Airbus A340 and Boeing 767. Ultimately, MD won the order and signed a deal for three aircraft with options on a further two in 1988.

However, the war in the former Yugoslavia and international sanctions placed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led to the interruption of international flights for two and a half years and the grounding of almost the entire fleet. Between June 1992 and October 1994, the airline operated only domestic flights. These events stopped the airline’s development and resulted in the cancellation of the MD-11 orders. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL)

KLM’s (KL) long-term relationship with McDonnell Douglas contributed to the purchase of the MD-11 as a replacement for its DC-10 fleet. On March 23, 1990, the airline confirmed an order for ten airframes, with options on a further five. The order was, at the time, the largest in the airline’s history. 

(Image: KLM)

Delivery of the first airframe was marked with a special ceremony on December 7, 1993, which was also honoured with the anniversary of sixty years of business relations between the two. The GE-powered aircraft were deployed on the airline’s North, South and Central American routes, plus those to Africa, the Far East and the Middle East.

The final MD-11 (PH-KCK) was delivered to the airline in April 1997. KLM never took up the last five options. All ten aircraft operated were configured with 282 seats, 251 in economy and 31 in business.

KLM became the last passenger operator of the MD-11 in the world. The final flight (KL672) was operated by 21-year-old PH-KCE from Montreal (YUL) to AMS on October 26, 2014. The Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 replaced the type. 

The airline added a special livery to its final MD-11, highlighting that it was the only airline in the world to operate every Douglas-built airliner from the DC-2 to the DC-10. Photo: KLM.

Korean Air (KE)

Korean Air (KE) ordered five P&W-powered MD-11s to replace its DC-10s and supplement the Boeing 747 fleet. The type was delivered between January 1991 and October 1992. 

The aircraft was initially configured with 20 first-class seats, 30 business and 223 in economy. 

However, the airline’s growing number of 747s and need for additional cargo capacity saw KE convert all its passenger variants into freighters in 1999.

The carrier lost one of its MD-11F when HL7373, en route from Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) to Seoul (ICN), crashed shortly after take-off on April 15, 1999. All three crew members aboard the aircraft and five on the ground were killed. Thirty-seven on the ground were also injured. The crash was blamed on pilot error.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

LTU International (LT)

German leisure carrier LTU International (LT) chose the MD-11 as part of a fleet renewal program to replace its Lockheed L-1011s. Four were ordered and delivered between December 1991 and March 1993. 

The LTU MD-11 s were powered by P&W engines and configured in an all-economy cabin layout that provided seating for 409 passengers. They were used on its long-haul services to the US, Caribbean and the Far East, plus higher density routes across Europe. 

A major reorganisation for LTU was announced in July 1997, and the SAirGroup became a majority shareholder. The move saw the sale of the four MD-11s to Swissair (SR) and the aircraft were delivered to the Swiss airline in October and November 1998. 

Old LTU vs. new LTU. (Image: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Malaysia Airlines (MH)

Malaysia Airlines (MH) leased several passenger and freighter MD-11s from World Airways (WO) from 1994. The passenger variant was used on the airline’s long-haul routes until May 1998 and were eventually replaced by the Boeing 777-200ER.

(Image: contri from Yonezawa-Shi Yamagata, JapanCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mandarin Airlines (AE)

In December 1992, China Airlines (CI) took over Mandarin Airlines (AE). As its network expanded, former CI MD-11s were transferred to the new subsidiary. The first MD-11 entered service in July 1993, with four being operated from November 1995 onwards. 

In August 1999, AE was merged with Formosa Airlines (VY) under the Mandarin name. However, its international network and MD-11 fleet were returned to CI following the merger.

AE MD-11 (B-151) pictured at Zurich. (Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Martinair Holland (MP)

Martinair Holland (MP) became the launch customer for the MD-11CF ‘Convertible Freighter,’ which allowed for the carriage of passengers and/or cargo. The airline ordered three aircraft, plus two options, in 1991. 

The first P&W-powered jet was delivered in December 1994. If used in the passenger configuration, 24 Star business and 344 tourist class seats were available in the wide-body cabin. 

However, MP ceased passenger operations in October 2011, and the MD-11s were then used for freight operations.

Martinair Holland (MP) became the launch customer for the MD-11CF ‘Convertible Freighter.’ (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Minerve (IW)

French carrier Minerve (IW) placed an order for two P&W-powered MD-11s in September 1998 and an additional example in June 1989. Deliveries were planned for 119, 1993 and 1994 and would be used to replace the DC-8 and DC-10. 

However, in January 1992, IW was merged with Air Outre Mer to create AOM French Airlines, and the MD-11 order was transferred across. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Monarch Airlines (ZB)

One of the UK’s oldest airlines Monarch (ZB) leased a WO MD-11 (N273WA) between May and October 1998 to add capacity to its long-range routes. Sistership N277WA was also used in 1999. 

(Image: Ken FieldingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nigeria Airways (WT)

Nigeria Airways (WT) ordered a single MD-11 passenger aircraft for delivery in December 1991. However, financial problems forced the airline to reduce costs and suspend unprofitable routes. This resulted in a fleet reduction and also in the cancellation of the MD-11 order. 

Philippine Airlines (PR)

Philippine Airlines (PR) was another carrier that utilised the services of WO and its MD-11s to supplement its long-haul fleet. Several airframes were used in 1996 and 1997 on the airline’s international routes.

During their deployment with PAL, the MD-11 s carried the full livery of the Philippine airline. 

(Image: Dennis HKG via Flickr)

Sabena (SN)

Sabena (SN) signed an agreement with fellow Belgian carrier CityBird (H2) in October 1997 to cooperate on scheduled services between Brussels (BRU) and Johannesburg (JNB), Nairobi (NBO), New York (EWR), Montreal (YMX) and Sao Paulo (GRU). These flights were operated with two H2 MD-11s, OO-CTS and OO-CTC, which entered service in April and May 1998, respectively. The aircraft had a 48 business and 249 economy class seating configuration.

Both airframes were painted in basic SN colours. Shortly after being placed into service, ‘Flying together with Swissair’ titles were added. In June 1998, additional ‘operated by City Bird’ title was placed under the cockpit windows of both aircraft. 

The leases for both aircraft were terminated in March 2001 and returned to H2. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Saudia (SV)

Saudia Arabian Airlines, or Saudia (SV) for short, wet-leased two WO MD-11s N272WA (which had previously been operating for Aer Lingus (EI) hence the livery) and N273WA, during March and April 1999 for pilgrim flights from Ankara (ESB), Damascus (DAM), Kuala Lumpur (KUL), London Heathrow (LHR) and Manchester (MAN) to Jeddah (JED) and Medina (MED). 

The airline also used a pair of MD-11s between 1998 and 2013 for the Saudi Arabian Royal Flight.

World Airways MD-11 (N273WA) utilised by Saudia for Haj Pilgrimage flights. (Image: Ken Fielding, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Singapore Airlines (SQ)

Singapore Airlines (SQ) had decided to focus its long-haul fleet around the Airbus A310 and Boeing 747 after retiring the DC-10 by the end of 1983. However, the airline soon realised it needed an aircraft that would fit between these two airliners. 

This led to the order of five P&W-powered MD-11s with the option on a further 15. However, SQ announced in August 1991 that it was cancelling the deal, citing concerns over the aircraft’s range and ability to perform on its Singapore (SIN) to Paris (CDG) service. It went on to order the Airbus A340.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Star Europe (SE)

The company leased a CityBird (H2) MD-11 (OO-CTB) for charter flights from Paris (ORY) to Reunion (RUN) from December 15, 1996, until the end of March 1997. 

The aircraft was operated in a 409 passengers all-economy configuration. No additional titles were added to the H2 livery.

Swissair (SR)

Based on the carrier’s previous experience with the DC-10, Swissair (SR) chose the MD-11 as its successor, becoming another launch customer. After Finnair (AY), it became the second European airline to take delivery of the type and put it into service. 

A total of sixteen aircraft were delivered between March 1991 and December 1997. Four ex-LTU examples also joined the fleet in November 1998. 

Swissair Asia MD-11. Photo: Swissair.

All SR MD-11s were powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4462 engines. The cabin layout included 12 first, 49 business and 180 or 187 economy seats. 

Tragically, the airline lost one of its MD-11s (HB-IWF) while flying from New York (JFK) to Geneva (GVA) on September 2, 1998. All 229 should onboard were killed in the crash, which was later blamed on a fire that started in the aircraft’s inflight entertainment system. The airframe was delivered to the carrier in August 1991.

Following Swissair’s collapse and the formation of Swiss International Air Lines, the new airline decided to focus its fleet on the Airbus A330 and A340. The last MD-11 was retired in 2002.

Wearing the airline’s 1984 paint scheme is HB-IWE ‘Nidwalden.’ (Image: McDonnell Douglas)

Thai International (TG)

Another launch customer for the MD-11 was Thai Airways International (TG) which ordered four of the type as a replacement for its DC-10s. The airline placed a further order for three more airframes, although TG never took up these jets.

Its first GE-powered example arrived in June 1991 and was configured to seat 10 ‘Royal first,’ 42 ‘Royal executive’ and 233 economy passengers.

TG had retired its MD-11s by the end of 2006, replaced by the Boeing 777-200ER. All four airframes were converted to freighters and taken up by UPS.

(Image: Jeff Gilbert – (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

TransAer International Airlines (T8)

A WO MD-11 was leased to the Irish charter carrier Transfer International (T8) from July 9 until September 1, 1999. The aircraft, N278WA, was operated in an all-white colour scheme without titles. 

USAfrica Airways (E8)

USAfrica Airways (E8) commenced operations in June 1994 to operate flights from Washington (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB) and Cape Town (CPT) via the Cape Verde Islands. 

The airline had initially planned to commence operations with a DC-10-30 leased from Continental Airlines (CO). However, AA put forward two of its MD-11s (N1757A and N1758A) configured in a three-class layout for 238 passengers. 

Operations ceased on February 3, 1995, and the two jets were returned to AA. 

USAfrica MD-11 (N1758B). (Image: P. DuboisCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Varig (RG)

Brazilian carrier Varig – Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense S.A. (RG) was also one of the launch customers for the MD-11, ordering six in 1986. They were delivered in 1991, 1992 and 1993, becoming the first Latin American airline to operate the type.

It was placed into service on the carriers Sao Paulo (GRU) – Rio de Janeiro (GIG) – Pairs (CDG/ORY) – Amsterdam (AMS) service. 

Varig MD-11 (PP-VPL) taxies out at London Heathrow. (Image: Tim Rees (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Nine more MD-11s would go on to join the fleet, all ex-Garuda Indonesia examples. 

The type played a significant role in the airline’s fleet, becoming the primary aircraft for RG’s long-haul flights. In addition to operating in North America, Europe and Asia, the MD-11 has also worked on busier South America and domestic routes. 

In 2005, VARIG LOG, a cargo subsidiary, became the first airline in Latin America to operate an all-cargo version of the MD-11F (PP-LGD and PP-LGE). The two units used by VARIG LOG came from Korean Air (KE). PP-LGE stopped operating in 2008 and returned in 2010, and PP-LGD returned in 2009.

RG selected Boeing 777-200 as a replacement for MD-11 and received the first two units in 2001. The company intended to replace its MD-11 fleet with Boeing 777s gradually. However, the company’s financial crisis prevented this replacement, and the MD-11 was part of RG’s fleet until it ended operations in 2006.

Varig MD-11 and the type that would replace it, the Boeing 777. (Image: Dale Coleman (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)


Viacao Aerea Sao Paulo, SA or VASP (VP) received its first two GE-powered MD-11s in February and March 1992. Over the years, the fleet grew to nine GE-powered examples. The airline selected a 325 passengers seat configuration consisting of ten first, 21 executive and 294 economy class seats. 

On July 27, 1996, VASP introduced its new Sao Paulo (GRU) – Los Angeles (LAX) – Osaka (KIX) service. The aircraft on the inaugural flight, MD-11 (PP-SPK), was christened ‘Kasato Maru.’ This was the name of the ship on which the first Japanese emigrants arrived in Brazil on June 18, 1908. 

A declining Brazilian economy in 1999 forced VASP to return its MD-11s to their lessors in February 2000 and the suspension of several long-haul destinations. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)


Venezuelan flag carrier VIASA – Venezolana Internacional de Aviacion SA (VA) ordered two MD-11 passenger aircraft for delivery in 1992. Serial numbers 48524 and 48525 were assigned; however, VA cancelled the order, and the aircraft were not built. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

World Airways (WO)

World Airways (WO) was once one of the biggest airlines in the world, and its aircraft (as seen in mentions above) appeared in various airline fleets. 

The airline welcomed its first MD-11 in March 1993. In total, the airline would operate 20 examples of both the passenger-only and freight-only variants. 

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

The passenger aircraft were usually flown in a 409 all-economy or a 28 business and 294 economy seat configuration. Lower-density seat configs were also available according to customer demand. 

Starting in 1993, scheduled services were once more flown to Israel and European destinations. However, these were terminated in mid-1996 to concentrate on charter passenger and cargo flights fully. 

WO abruptly ceased operations in March 2014 after 66 years of service.

SonAir utilised a WO MD-11 for its Houston (IAH to Luanda (LAD) service. (Image: Pertti Sipilä (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Zambia Airways (ZN)

The carrier placed an order for one MD-11 to be delivered in 1992. However, financial difficulties led to the cancellation of the order in 1991. Zambia Airways (ZN) ceased operations in December 1994.

(Image: McDonnell Douglas)

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

To read more history behind some of the world’s most iconic airliners, click here.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross

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