MIAMI — Sunday marks 20 years since United Airlines became the world’s first airline to introduce the Boeing 777 into commercial service. Since United’s maiden flight, more than 1,200 777s have been delivered to customers worldwide, and roughly fifty airlines have operated some version or another of the 777 since it was debuted in ’95, many of which still fly the type today. Among the largest operators include ANA, American, Emirates, and United.
United was the launch customer for the Boeing 777, placing an order in October of 1990 for 34 aircraft and 34 options. United now operates 74 777-200s and is the -200s largest operator. United just became the 2nd US based carrier to order the Boeing 777-300ER with 10 on order for delivery beginning in 2016. British Airways became the second operator of the type, when the 777 entered service with the UK flag carrier later in 1995. BA was the first to operate the longer-ranged B Model.
The airplane celebrated its 1000th delivery on March 3rd, 2012 when a 777-300ER was turned over to Dubai-based Emirates airlines, and just last year, Boeing delivered its 500th 777-300ER.
It’s safe to say that the 777 has carried more than a billion people from point A to point B, and 24/7/365, the aircraft plays a significant role in helping connect the world by getting people to their destinations whether it be for a family vacation or a wedding or a business meeting.
To mark the occasion this week, Boeing invited current and former people involved with the aircraft to a celebration in Everett, even going so far as to create a “pop up museum” detailing the Triple Seven’s history.
The First Commercial Flight
On June 7, 1995, United Airlines flew its inaugural Boeing 777 flight from Denver to Chicago O’Hare. United flight 910 made history over the U.S. as it flew approximately 292 people between the two big U.S. cities. London Heathrow to Washington Dulles had the honors to receive the first international flight. The delivery took place less then 3 weeks before on May 15, 1995.
In a press release from 1995, Gerald Greenwald, chairman and chief executive officer, said, “On behalf of our 76,000 employees, our 74 million customers, our travel agents and our associates at Boeing and Pratt & Whitney and their suppliers, United Airlines is tremendously excited about introducing the Boeing 777 into the world’s first revenue service. This aircraft represents the best combination of comfort and technology ever offered to commercial aviation passengers. We are more than confident that the traveling public will quickly come to appreciate the numerous features incorporated into this magnificent aircraft that will make flying a greater joy than ever before.”
At the time of the maiden flight, the aircraft was truly state-of-the-art. Customers on United’s 777s now had access to up to six channels of video feature films and short subjects as well as 19 channels of CD-quality audio (120 minutes per channel) in English as well as multiple languages.
According to an early brochure, “The aircraft will also equipped with a fully integrated digital telephone system that provided global telecommunications capability for voice, fax and data. Passengers will be able to keep in touch from anywhere in the world whether they are flying over land or water.”
Other 777 Variants
Three major subtypes of the original -200 have since been manufactured. The 777-200ER was released in 1997, followed by the 777-200 Long Range in 2006. The LR version was particularly impressive, capable of flying up to 9,380 nautical miles nonstop. A freight version hit the market in 2006, though orders have been few.
The -200 has since been largely replaced, however, by the larger -300 derivative. The first 777-300 was unveiled in Seattle in 1998. Designed to replace classic 747s, the airplane was given an impressive 6,015 nautical mile range and capacity for over 500 passengers. It was stretched thirty-three feet beyond the -200, making it the longest aircraft of its time. Cathay Pacific took the first, and continues to operate one of the largest -300 classic fleets in the world, recently taking its 50th 777.
777’s Safety Record
Over the lat 20 years, the 777 has enjoyed a stellar safety record. Only five of the more than 1,200 aircraft produced have suffered verified hull losses. The first came in 2008, almost thirteens years into service,when a British Airways -200 jet crashed short of the runway in London. The accident was blamed on ice crystals clogging part of the fuel system. The second occurred in 2011, when an EgyptAir 777-200 flight deck caught fire at the gate in Cairo due to an electrical fault, and the aircraft was latter written off. Neither incident resulted in any fatalities.
The only verified fatalities came from Asiana Airlines flight 214, which crash landed in San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013. Three died when the airplane sank too fast in its approach, hit a perimeter seawall, lost its tail, and skidded violently down the runway before coming to a stop.
Of course the big elephant in the room is the presumed loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The -200 jet left Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing, on March 9th, 2014. It disappeared from civilian radar only one hour into the flight and appears to have inexplicably tacked west, and then south, according to military radar and satellite data information. Though no trace of the plane has been found, it is believed to be located in the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Australia. Once confirmed, it will be the second official fatal incident for the airplane, with 239 lost.
Just a few months after Malaysia flight 370 disappeared, Malaysia flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine while flying to Kuala Lumpur, after departing Amsterdam, on July 17, 2014. All 283 passengers and 15 crew on board were killed; the Russian government blames Ukraine while Ukranians blame the Russians. The Dutch Safety Board is currently leading the investigation, and it is expected that they will release their final accident report sometime this Fall.
777 Moving Onwards and Upwards
When most airplanes celebrate their twentieth anniversary, talk begins to orient more towards retirement than renewal. Indeed Boeing’s own 757 program wrapped up production in just over twenty years. The Airbus A340, and DC-10 were produced for eighteen years, and the MD-11 for only twelve.
Yet the 777 is set to live on. The possibility of a rebuilt, next generation 777X first popped up in 2011. The new base model, the -9X, will stretch the fuselage to over 250 feet, seven feet beyond the current -300ER. The wingspan will increase nearly twenty feet, necessitating folding wingtips. It is expected to have a range of 8,200 nautical miles (NM) and a seating capacity of 400 passengers. A shorter -8X will be able to fly 350 passengers up to 9,300NM.
Lufthansa wasted no time, and it ordered 34 -9X airplanes in September, a few months before its intended launch in Dubai. Meanwhile at the 2013 Dubai air show, the Gulf Big Three placed firm orders and options for up to 225 airplanes. Since, ANA and Cathay Pacific have ordered the jet as well.
By the time the airplane is delivered to carriers in 2020, the 777 will have been gracing blue skies around the world for twenty-five years. And thanks to the 777X, we can likely look forward to twenty-five more.