Delta says goodbye to the Boeing 777 on Saturday, the one-time 'queen of our fleet'
After a four-and-a-half hour flight from Seattle, the pilots flying Delta Air Lines' first Boeing 777 flew low over the runway at the carrier's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport home -- rocking their wings back and forth in a symbolic greeting to the crowds below.
"This is obviously the new queen of our fleet," Delta's then CEO Leo Mullin told journalists The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The day was March 26, 1999. The 777-200 that landed was the first of what would grow to an 18-strong fleet of the venerable Boeing wide-body over the next two decades.
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But the 777 will never see its silver anniversary at Delta. The last of Delta's 777s flies off to the desert after a final passenger flight on Halloween.
The wide-body was an early -- and unexpected -- victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Delta is retiring all 18 of its 777s and bringing the "future of the fleet forward" -- as chief customer experience Bill Lentsch put it on Friday -- with a flagship long-haul wide-body fleet centered on the Airbus A350.
“It will be a favorable cost impact and a favorable customer service impact," Lentsch told reporters on the accelerated shift towards a primarily Airbus fleet. Replacing the 777s with A350s alone will cut fuel burn by 21% on flights where the latter jet flies.
In addition, flyers can expect a more consistent inflight experience with fewer airplane types in the fleet, he added.
Related: Delta Air Lines will retire its Boeing 777s in latest coronavirus fallout
Delta's final passenger 777 flight, DL8777, is due to depart New York JFK at 1 p.m. local time and arrive at Los Angeles (LAX) at 4 p.m. local time on Saturday, Oct. 31. The flight will be operated with one of its newer 777-200LRs that were just recently outfitted with the airline's latest onboard offerings, including Delta One business class suites and Premium Select premium economy seats.
From LAX, the plane and several others are bound for storage in the desert at Victorville, California, before they are either sold or scrapped, said Lentsch.
Delta may continue to use several of its 777s for charters and cargo flights through the end of the year.
Related: Why Delta disclosed Boeing 717, 767 retirement plans 5 years in advance
The 777 is just one of six mainline types at Delta, including Boeing 717s and McDonnell Douglas MD-88s, whose retirement was accelerated by COVID. When all said and done -- something that is not slated until 2025 -- the carrier will operate primarily Airbus jets with only 737s and a select number of 757s and 767-400ERs remaining from Boeing.
Other airlines have also removed jets by the dozen. Alaska Airlines retired its Airbus A319s and American Airlines accelerated the removal of its Airbus A330s, 757s, 767s and Embraer E190s since March. And across the Atlantic, Air France said au revoir to its Airbus A380s while British Airways has flown its Boeing 747s off to a retirement in Wales.
Trade group Airlines for America (A4A) estimates that nearly 20% of U.S. airline fleets -- nearly 1,000 aircraft -- were in long-term storage, or anything over six months, as of Oct. 25.
Related: US airlines may retire as many as 1,000 jets due to the coronavirus
Delta's 777 retirement in favor of Airbus jets is tinged with irony. The Boeing wide-body having edged out the competing Airbus A330 for the order in 1997.
Boeing originally pitched the 777 as a replacement for Delta's Lockheed L-1011 fleet in 1996, according to reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While the jet was viewed as too large for the L-1011s primarily U.S. domestic routes, the planemakers decision to stretch the 767 -- what became the 767-400ER -- to replace the Lockheed tri-jet ultimately landed it an order for more than 100 737s, 767s and ultimately 777s.
The first 777-200s flew primarily between Delta's U.S. hubs and large European cities like Frankfurt, London and Paris. The addition of the 777-200LRs with a longer range allowed the airline to add new far flung destinations like Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sydney, Australia, to its map.
“The 777 played an important role with Delta since 1999, allowing us to open new long-haul markets and grow our international network as we transformed into a global airline," said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a statement. "I’ve flown on that plane often and I love the customer experience it has delivered over the years."
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