Delta Air Lines And The Boeing 777: A History

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As Delta Air Lines prepares to retire the Boeing 777 from its fleet by the end of this month, it is important to remember that this type is relatively young compared to other of Delta’s planes and entire fleet types. Delta only had 18 777s in its fleet. However, these aircraft were some of Delta’s most important long-haul jets and unlocked plenty of long-haul routes. Here’s the history of Delta’s Boeing 777 operations.

Delta Boeing 777 Getty
Delta took its first Boeing 777 in 1999. Photo: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines acquires the 777

The Boeing 777 is an iconic aircraft, and Delta had an opportunity to work with Boeing to design and get the aircraft into service. Subsequently, in 1999, Delta Air Lines received its first Boeing 777-200ER on March 24th of that year. The aircraft had 277 seats onboard.

This included 52 seats in BusinessElite in a 2-2-2 configuration. These seats were not at all like the airline’s latest Delta One Suite, but rather recliner-style “sleeper” seats with five feet of space between them, leaving more legroom and opportunity to recline and sleep on a long-haul flight. At the time, Delta noted it had taken an “unusual” step to include no middle seats in the airline’s premium cabin. In economy, there were 225 seats in a nine-abreast configuration. These seats offered personal video screens, adjustable headrests, and footrests.

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N860DA, Delta’s first Boeing 777-200ER. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons

Leo F. Mullin, CEO of Delta Air Lines at the time, stated the following:

“Delta’s 777 is more than a new flagship for our fleet. It symbolizes our commitment to excellence, to leadership in the industry, and to becoming the very best airline in the eyes of our customers.”

Where did Delta fly the Boeing 777?

Delta Air Lines initially flew the Boeing 777s off to Europe. However, the airline expected the aircraft also to be able to fly nonstop transpacific routes, such as between Atlanta and Tokyo. Nevertheless, at the start, Delta Air Lines flew the 777s between Atlanta and London-Gatwick, Cincinnati and London-Gatwick, and Atlanta and Frankfurt. Before that, the aircraft also was used on domestic training flights between Atlanta and Orlando. The 777 entered service on May 1st, 1999, between Atlanta and London.

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Delta’s 777s first flew to London and Frankfurt. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons

Delta hits a snag with the 777s

The aircraft itself was something Delta wanted. The airline appreciated the technology onboard, such as predictive wind shear and collision avoidance systems, enhanced ground proximity warning system (GPWS), and more. Not to mention, the aircraft did not require much new pilot training. Delta stated that 767 flight crews only need 11 days of additional training to fly the Boeing 777.

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However, Delta had to delay deliveries of the 777 due to ongoing pilot contract negotiations over pay rates and work rules for the aircraft type. On November 1st, 1999, Delta suspended Boeing 777 service amid the ongoing talks. After a new pilot contract agreement was ratified, the 777s took to the skies again on December 1st, 1999.

Getting the long-range 777s

Delta Air Lines was the first US carrier to take delivery of the 777-200LR. This was, at the time, the world’s longest-range commercial jetliner. Delta wanted this specific aircraft type to use on its international expansion, as the carrier noted it could connect “virtually any two cities around the globe, nonstop.” Delta took its first 777-200LR only 12 years ago, in 2008.

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The Boeing 777-200LR enabled Delta to add nonstop Los Angeles to Australia service. Photo: Getty Images

By this time, Delta had upgraded its onboard product. The airline could fit 276 passengers onboard, with 44 in BusinessElite. These seats were in a herringbone configuration and could convert into a full-flat bed. Each seat had access to a video monitor, footrest, personal storage, and offered direct aisle access in a 1-2-1 configuration. Compared to the old product, this was a welcome relief– especially considering the routes Delta was flying this aircraft on.

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BusinessElite was later rebranded Delta One, though these seats stuck around for a while until Delta launched a refurbishment. Simple Flying got to test out the herringbone business class on a flight between Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Delta One Herringbone
The Delta One Herringbone seat. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Where did the 777-200LRs fly?

Delta first flew the 777-200LRs between Atlanta and Los Angeles. However, the aircraft also flew flights to Mumbai and Tokyo from Atlanta. The 777-200LR enabled the airline to launch flights to Mumbai from Atlanta, though that route did not last. One route that did, however, was a flight between Atlanta and Johannesburg. Mumbai service recently returned from New York-JFK using a 777-200LR.

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Delta had a total of 10 Boeing 777-200LRs in its fleet and eight of the 777-200ERs. Photo: Getty Images

Refurbishing the 777s

In 2016, Delta Air Lines announced its upcoming Airbus A350 would have a new business class product. This lie-flat seat would feature a door and offer passengers more privacy than the carrier’s existing products. Targeted initially on the A350, Delta announced it would also roll out the new product onboard its Boeing 777s. In 2017, Delta announced its true premium economy product, Premium Select, would debut on the A350s. Again, these would also be rolled out on the 777s.

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Delta One Suites
The new Delta One Suites only arrived on the 777s from 2018. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Delta began rolling out the reconfigured 777s in 2018, spending $100 million on retrofitting all 18 aircraft. These planes were flying long-haul jaunts to Sydney, Shanghai, Johannesburg, and later Mumbai. So, to stay competitive, Delta did have to invest in the experience.

The 777s were, notably, different from the A350s in that they offered extra-legroom economy onboard. Elite members can get complimentary upgrades to the class, while all elites cannot get complimentary upgrades to Premium Select or Delta One.

Retiring the Boeing 777s

Delta would one day retire the 777s, though most did not expect it would happen in 2020. When the current crisis hit, Delta’s long-haul international network suffered as demand plummeted, and border restrictions went up. As such, Delta began evaluating its needs and decided that it would retire the 777s in 2020.

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Delta announced it was retiring all 18 777s this year. Photo: Delta Air Lines

With only 18 of the type in its fleet, these planes added inefficiencies at a time when Delta was looking to reduce them. Plus, with a sizable A350 order book, Delta saw the opportunity for the A350 to replace the 777-200s, though not entirely. While the A350 will fly to Sydney in Australia, to serve Johannesburg’s hot and high airport, Delta has to add a stop on the way back in Cape Town, operating a triangle service. Competitor United Airlines will be flying Newark to Johannesburg nonstop with a Boeing 787-9, meaning Delta will, from 2021, no longer be the only US carrier flying between Johannesburg and the United States.

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The 777s formed an impressive fleet that enabled Delta to try out some interesting long-haul opportunities. Though Delta was one of the airlines that worked closely with Boeing in designing the jet, it never became a massive operator of the type, unlike American and United. While Boeing is rolling out the new 777X in the next couple of years, Delta has not placed on order for the type, meaning, as of now, Delta appears to be nearing the end of 777 services with the final flight scheduled for this month.

Are you sad to see Delta’s 777s go? What is your favorite memory of the carrier’s units? Let us know in the comments!

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