A History Of Delta’s Boeing 777 Operations

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Iconic aircraft retirements abound in 2020. We have said goodbye to Air France’s A380s, British Airways’ and KLM’s 747s, and tomorrow will mark the last Delta Air Lines Boeing 777 flight. As we get ready to wave goodbye to yet another long-haul twin-aisle classic, let’s take a look back at Delta’s relationship to the Triple Seven through the years – and where it will go without it.

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Delta Air Lines is retiring its 777 aircraft on October 31st. Photo: Getty Images

Delta’s Triple Seven farewell

The final Delta Air Lines 777 flight will take off tomorrow, Saturday, October 31st. The airline will operate the plane on a service from New York’s JFK to Los Angeles. Delta’s last international flight with the Triple Seven took place two days ago. Unfortunately, the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Los Angeles carried cargo only, not passengers.

The news that the airline would be retiring all of its 777s before years end came in May, at what we had hoped would be the height of the crisis. Although Delta only ever operated 18 of the 777, the model was instrumental in unlocking commercial long-haul routes for the Atlanta-based carrier.

Letting them go was a part of Delta’s plans to simplify and modernize its fleet. With at least the former predicted to be a crucial part in airline recovery moving forward, now seemed to be as good a time as any. Even though, Delta had just spent around $100 million reconfiguring all of its 777s with Delta One Suites and its new premium economy concept, Premium Select.

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The first 777 entered service with Delta in May 1999 with a flight to London Gatwick. Photo: Getty Images

Seven 777s in 1999

Delta Air Lines took delivery of its first Boeing 777 just before the turn of the century. In March 1999, two Triple Sevens, N860DA, and N861DA arrived with the carrier from Boeing’s Everett factory. Both were of the 777-200ER variety. The first entered service on May 1st, with a flight between Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and London Gatwick.

Another five followed in December of the same year. The cause for the gap in, and then subsequent relay of, deliveries was Delta’s suspension of the aircraft’s operations during negotiations with its pilots for pay rate and work regulations for the model. These new additions, with 277 seats (52 in a 2-2-2 configuration on BusinessElite and 225 in economy), provided the carrier with a new range to its network.

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With the arrival of the 777-200LR, Delta began flying ultra-long-haul. Photo: Getty Images

777-200LR unlocked ultra-long-haul routes

However, it was nothing compared to when in 2008 Delta, as the first US airline to do so, took delivery of a 777-200LR. This unlocked previously unattainable nonstop long-haul routes for Delta. Such as the airline’s Atlanta to Johannesburg service, which none of Delta’s current fleet is capable of flying without a stop to refuel.

“This 777-200LR marks an important milestone for Delta as our first new delivery from Boeing in six years, as well as another step forward in creating a truly global airline,” Delta Air Lines’ then President, Ed Bastian, said in a statement at the time seen by Simple Flying.

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The arrival of the new jet, named The Delta Spirit, was special not only because it had the longest range of any commercial airliner to date. It was also the first aircraft delivered to Delta in six years, following its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Altogether, Delta took ten of them, with the final joining the carrier’s fleet in March 2010.

By then, the BusinessElite section of the cabin was a 1-2-1 configuration with 44 fully horizontal personal sleeper suites. Economy could fit 232 for a full passenger count of 276.

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In 2009, Delta inaugurated its 777 service to Sydney. Photo: Getty Images

A350 carrying the ultra-long-haul torch

In June, Delta announced that in order to keep serving its South African destination with one of its A350s, it would add an additional stop in Cape Town on the return. This will be a triangle route, and thus far, there are no plans of turning the Johannesburg to Cape Town leg into a fifth freedom flight.

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In 2009, Delta inaugurated its service from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, with one of its 777s, thereby flying to all continents in the world. However, this, along with Delta’s other pre-crisis ultra-long-haul routes between Atlanta and Shanghai and New York and Mumbai, can still be managed non-stop with an A350.

The airline has also deployed its 777s on premium long-haul routes such as Los Angeles to Paris and Atlanta to Amsterdam.

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Delta’s A350s will take over the carrier’s ultra-long-haul routes, adding one extra destination in South Africa. Photo: Getty Images

A difficult decision

Letting go of 18 planes may not seem like that big of a step for an airline as large as Delta. Particularly when doing so in the favor of more fuel-efficient and economically sound equivalents that can operate almost all of the same routes. However, it was the 777 that allowed Delta to expand into a global airline. Its presence will surely be missed, both by passengers and crew.

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“Retiring a fleet as iconic as the 777 is not an easy decision,” Ed Bastian, now CEO, recently said in a letter to Delta employees seen by Simple Flying. “I know it has a direct impact on many of you who fly, crew, and service these jets.

“However, parking this fleet will provide significant cost savings over the next several years,” he continued.

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The 777s have kept flying cargo throughout the crisis. Photo: Getty Images

Waving goodbye after months of cargo

During the ongoing crisis, Delta’s 777s have continued to operate long-haul jaunts for the airline supporting its international cargo-operations. The airline has also deployed it on select routes for repatriation flights, bringing stranded US citizens back from abroad.

However, now it is time to say goodbye. It may not have been a final year worthy of the history of the relationship between Delta and its Triple Sevens, but if 2020 is teaching us anything, it is that plans do not always come to fruition and to learn to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. That should not stop us from honoring what has been.

What is your relationship to the 777? Is there any flight on the iconic widebody that you remember in particular? Perhaps one of Delta’s? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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