25 years of the Boeing 777: My story with the Triple Seven in pictures

Jun 10, 2020

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The Boeing 777 just turned an important milestone: 25 years from its first commercial flight. The story that began on June 7, 1995, when United Airlines flew its first 777 from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles, has turned out to be one of the great successes in commercial aviation. The Triple Seven is now the best-selling wide-body airplane ever, and it’s second only to the ubiquitous 737 as the best-selling Boeing jet.

With so many of them around, it’s no surprise that they should appear frequently, and prominently, in our coverage of aviation. The best long-haul first class in the world, according to the TPG Awards? It’s Air France’s La Premiere, at the front end of a 777. And the best business class? Also found on 777s, it’s Qatar Airways’ Qsuite. What about the best premium economy? That was on Virgin Australia’s 777s. Then you have the dazzling suites in Emirates first class and ANA business — both on 777s.

That dominance of the Triple Seven is no chance. The plane may not have the aviation-history charm of the 747, but it has largely taken its place in the world’s airline fleets because of its better economics.

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A technical marvel, the world’s biggest twinjet — powered by the most powerful engines in the history of aviation — does almost everything the 747 can, but cheaper. Thanks to its huge belly holds, it has also been pulling double duty as a cargo carrier, after airlines found themselves almost without passengers due to the coronavirus.

Like many frequent flyers, my personal story with the 777 goes way back: my first ride in a Triple Seven was in the early 2000s in a Delta bird from Atlanta to Paris. I’ve logged hundreds of thousands of miles on the 777 since, without a hitch — the plane has an excellent safety record — but with many memorable moments, none more so than the first time I flew in a 777 cockpit.

In a bid to impress my girlfriend while flying from New York to Rome in 2006, I asked a friend who happened to be an Alitalia captain if he might be able to ask his colleague commanding our flight to let us peek into the flight deck. Not only did we peek: we sat in it, as our plane cruised toward Spain and the captain sipped an espresso — because of course Italy’s flag carrier has espresso machines on board. You’ll see the navigation map and coffee cup on the left of the image.

Clearly the flight-deck visit (and a dazzling display of the Northern Lights from our business-class windows) worked as intended, because the following year we found ourselves headed to Rome again — for our wedding. On a 777, of course. And because by then Alitalia knew us, we got another cockpit visit. I snapped this photo of the displays, showing us at 39,000 feet over Italy, 36.3 nautical miles from our next waypoint over the Genoa airport. Almost there!

During a tarmac tour of JFK in 2004, I had seen one of those Alitalia 777s from up close, too. Little did I know that one of them would fly me to my own wedding just three years later.

Over the years, I got close looks at many more 777s doing interesting things, like this Virgin Australia 777-300ER landing in Moses Lake — a huge and semi-deserted airport in Washington state — at the end of what was probably its very first flight, fresh from the factory. Boeing often sends brand-new planes to Moses Lake on their first test flight, and that day in 2009 I happened to be there with a camera.

A couple years later, the Italian newspaper I was working for sent me to that Boeing factory to report on the first delivery of a 787 to a customer. Boeing threw in a tour of the Everett assembly line for the journalists, and that’s when I saw a 777-300ER being built for Emirates. Still unpainted, it showed clearly how aluminum skin panels are riveted onto the frame, and how modern aircraft manufacturing is a highly computerized process, with monitors sitting right by the fuselage.

The 777 holds another distinction for me: it’s the only airplane I’ve flown in all four classes. Several of those flights have been for TPG reviews, like one my most unusual inflight experiences, a Kuwait Airways long-haul trip in first class from Dubai to New York via Kuwait City and Shannon. The seat was a great enclosed suite that could have been a contender for one of the best inflight products in the world. The service and soft product were, let’s say, not on par with the seat.

In business class, on the other hand, I had one of the best flights of my life on an EVA Air 777 from Seattle to Taipei. From exquisite attention to detail to near-perfect service and outstanding food, it was a delight. No wonder we think EVA is an underrated gem.

Premium economy on Aeroflot from Moscow to New York stayed with me more for the exceptional inflight entertainment system than for the hard-shell seat.

Economy class on Air France from Boston to Paris stood out for one unpleasant detail: the dirty state of the aircraft.

All in all, though, my encounters with the Triple Seven have been an aviation-geek delight. One time, taking off from Newark, I spotted ahead of us in the takeoff queue the OG 777: the United bird that started it all with that first flight to Dulles, easily identifiable by its tail number, N777UA. It’s still going strong today, doing domestic runs all over the United States.

I owe 777s two of my favorite aviation photographs, as well. One was taken on a flight from Singapore to Seoul aboard a Korean Air 777-300ER, as the full moon hung below our left wing. While my fellow passengers in Korean’s excellent coach class slept unaware of the wonder outside their windows, I took frame upon frame until I finally got the exposure I wanted. The 777’s rock-solid ride helped avoid any camera shake.

And one summer evening on the ground, at Bayswater Park in New York City, I spent hours waiting for the setting sun, a fisherman’s boat and a plane landing at JFK to all line up just so. When it finally happened, the star of the shot was a Triple Seven.

All photos by the author.

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