Boeing MD-87

Want to travel in style with a small entourage? For the money, an executive-configured version of this airliner is hard to beat.

For less than $5 million, you can buy a refurbished Boeing MD-87, originally designed for up to 130 airline passengers, with updated avionics, an executive interior that seats 19 to 30, and a range of 4,800 nautical miles when fitted with auxiliary belly tanks. Parts and pilots are plentiful. Moreover, the former are cheap when compared with similar components for large corporate jets because hundreds of MD-80 series aircraft have been permanently parked by the airlines in Arizona, California, and New Mexico with their parts just waiting to be plucked for pennies on the dollar. 

That’s the good news. Now the bad: expect fuel burn of 950 gallons an hour—nearly double that of a big Gulfstream. And with its maximum takeoff weight of 151,000 pounds, you can’t fly this bird everywhere. The runways can be short, but they need to be thick enough to support the heft, and that generally means you’re going to land somewhere with a major sports franchise. 

Still, for the money, an executive MD-87 is hard to beat when you want to travel in style with a small entourage. “They are an incredible value,” says Andreas Mauritzson. “Performance-wise, this airplane does the exact same thing as a BBJ [Boeing Business Jet], with similar direct operating costs. The cabin is whisper-quiet, and the airplane delivers a very nice ride.” Mauritzson, who typically brokers purpose-built corporate jets, also says that maintaining one of these beasts will cost less than you think. “I was shocked by how [relatively] cheap these aircraft are to maintain,” he says, noting as an example that replacing a windshield on an MD-87 costs less than 10 percent of what it does on a large corporate jet. 

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You can trace the model’s roots back to the Douglas DC-9 twinjet, an aircraft that first flew in 1965. (McDonnell merged with Douglas in 1967 and its commercial aircraft from that point forward carried the “MD” moniker; Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas for $13 billion in 1996.) 

Two months before the FAA even certified the original variant of the airplane, Americans could see a DC-9 every Wednesday night on the ABC television network’s Amos Burke Secret Agent. An unmarked DC-9-10 would taxi in while nattily dressed star Gene Barry waited on the ramp with his bulletproof 1962 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II. The jet would stop, Barry would point his sonic pen at the cabin door, opening it and deploying the built-in air stair. And off he’d go to save the world. Five years later, Playboymagazine publisher Hugh Hefner paid $5 million for a new DC-9-30, painted it black, installed a custom executive/party interior that included a round bed with an opossum cover, and staffed it with Playboy bunnies. The iconic jet became known as “Big Bunny.”

The TV show and Hefner’s jet helped to publicize the aircraft, but its design deserves most of the credit for its success: two Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofans bolted to the back of a fuselage mated to a pair of efficient wings and a T-tail. The pieces harmonized to enable operations off 5,000-foot runways in small and midsized urban areas, bringing commercial jet service to millions who had thought they might never see it. Some 976 DC-9s rolled off the assembly line at Long Beach, California before production transitioned to larger and more efficient variants known as the MD-80 series.

This series proved even more successful than the DC-9, with 1,191 built between 1979 and 1999 across six models designated from MD-81 to MD-88. The aircraft remains in service with several airlines around the world, but the last commercial carriers flying it in the U.S.—Allegiant, American, and Delta—are all scheduled to phase it out this year or early next. (Between 1993 and 2000, the manufacturer built 116 copies of a stretched version of the MD-80 series, the MD-90, which can seat 156 to 172 passengers in airline configuration; a shortened version—initially christened the MD-95 and later renamed the 717 after Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas—sold another 156 units between 1998 and 2006. China’s Comac has built limited numbers of an airplane called the ARJ-21, which closely resembles the 717; less than a dozen of those were in service at the end of 2018.)

The MD-80 series is renowned for its durability and “old school” flying characteristics. Retired airline captain Jim Russell logged 24,000 hours in MD-80s and is hard-pressed to recall any significant maintenance issues with the airplane that caused missed flights or en route drama. “It was a really solid airplane and really quiet in the cockpit and the cabin,” he says. 

There have been a few accidents over the years that have accounted for 35 hull losses, but almost all have been attributable to pilot error or maintenance snafus. The most notorious of the latter occurred when an Alaska Airlines MD-83 went out of control and crashed off the California coast in 2000 due to improper maintenance of its trim system, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. 

Between 1987 and 1992, McDonnell Douglas built 75 MD-87s, a variant 17 feet shorter than other MD-80s and aimed primarily at the short-haul European airline market. Approximately 11 of these were converted to VIP/executive configuration, according to Mauritzson. He says that given the airplane’s price point today, converting an old airliner MD-87 to an executive cabin probably doesn’t make sense, given the year of downtime and $2 million cost. 

The MD-87 comes standard with forward and aft built-in air stairs, making passenger entry/egress a non-issue. The aircraft that Mauritzson is selling all have fully updated avionics required for U.S. and international travel and are equipped with amenities that include a private stateroom, three lavatories (one with a shower), and two galleys. He recommends seeking out models equipped with the Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines as opposed to the Dash 217C model, as the former offers an extra thousand pounds of thrust per side. There are plenty of maintenance providers for the aircraft and costs can further be reduced by participating in Boeing’s low-utilization maintenance program, as most executive MD-87s see only 200 to 300 hours in the air per year or even less.

While admitting the market for the airplane is somewhat narrow, Mauritzson says, “The people who like these airplanes really like them.” So pull up in your Rolls-Royce and hop aboard. The MD-87 looks a little different from the 1965 DC-9 that Amos Burke jetted off in, but the world still needs saving.