MIAMI — Switzerland is a very aviation-minded country. There is no other way to explain the huge commotion at Zurich’s Kloten Airport last Friday: The open air rooftop terrace was specially opened at 07:00 for an event that the outgoing SWISS CEO Harry Hohmeister describes as “a historical day for Switzerland, a symbol of our first step into the future.”
It was the arrival of the first Boeing 777-300ER for the Swiss national carrier, having emerged from the ashes of former Swissair and now firmly established as a solid money-maker within the Lufthansa Group. But still it was fascinating to watch how a simple Boeing 777-300ER, a mainstay of many of today’s long-haul fleets with over 580 in service worldwide, could mobilize thousands of spectators to flock to the airport early on an initially rainy January morning.
There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving when the aircraft finally appeared in the skies over runway 16/34 shortly after 9am local time, escorted by two F/A-18 fighter jets of the Swiss Air Force. “Our pilots flying the delivery flight from Everett’s Paine Field to Zurich are themselves former air force pilots, and the fighter pilots are friends of theirs, so it was a natural gesture for them to escort the new flagship and do some aerial photography with their reconnaissance cameras during a flyby of the famous Matterhorn peak in the Swiss Alps,” Captain Ola Hansson, the SWISS Fleet Chief for the Boeing 777, told Airways.
Finally at 9:14 local time, after an estimated flight time of nine hours and 55 minutes, but with all the extra loops amounted to a total time of 10 hours and 21 minutes, the new “flagship of Switzerland”, as it was referred to, touched down at its new home base.
This first aircraft is a Boeing 777-3DE(ER), (HB-JNA / MSN 44582 / LN 1363), and it will receive a special scheme in which hundreds of SWISS employees in different sizes will be applied on the fuselage before the aircraft embarks on pilot training flight this week.
From February 8th there will be two weeks of crew training flights on scheduled short haul services around Europe, “we need our pilots to accumulate landings” Captain Hansson said.
By the end of August, SWISS will have received five more 777s, of an initial order of nine, which come to replace the aging Airbus A340-300 fleet, of which SWISS operated 15 to date. The main reason for purchasing the 777s that were ordered in early 2013 only was because of the price “we’ve got them relatively cheap and quickly” admitted Hansson.
“The 787 Dreamliner is too small for us, and the Airbus A350 would be available in 2019. We were in immediate need of new aircraft” commented SWISS CEO Hohmeister, who is about to leave the airline to assume a top rank position in the Lufthansa Group in Frankfurt. Lufthansa itself is the launch customer for the Boeing 777-9, with the first of 34 firm orders to be delivered by 2020.
SWISS has configured its 777-300ER fleet with a three-class cabin configuration with a total seating for 340 passengers. The product is a leap forward when compared to the Airbus A340-300s it is replacing. The eight individual cabins in First Class boast the largest video screens in the industry, measuring 32 inches, and electro-mechanical window shades, serving all three windows per seat at once.
The 62 seats in Business Class are configured either 1-2-2 or 2-2-1, creating a total of 12 single “throne seats” with extra storage space and armrests-cum-tables on both sides of the seat. The current SWISS Business offering has been refined and enhanced, with more storage space and privacy, also for the first time introducing three-point seat belts instead of an airbag in the lap belt.
The 270 Economy Class seats boast more recline, bigger 11-inch touchscreens and USB and audio ports for every passenger. The biggest novelty of the aircraft, however, is the Panasonic eX connect IFE system, with Swiss as the first major European carrier now allowing voice calls on its 777 fleet. “This function will be disabled after the inflight service on night flights”, says Frank Maier, Head of Product and Services at Swiss. “We will test it for one year but expect to keep it on with not too many people using it, but it is something you have to offer as an airline these days.”
Online access will be offered in three different data packages, starting at 9 Swiss Francs ($8.82) for 20 MB, a model much more expensive for the passenger usually than flat-fee models like Lufthansa utilizes.
SWISS will deploy its first Boeing 777 on regular long haul flights from Zurich to New York JFK from February 21 four times a week, then it will switch to daily Montréal services on March 27. For this route, the aircraft is actually too big for commercial reasons, “but we are forced to do it because of ETOPS training requirements”, said Hansson. In mid-April, the 777s will be finally starting to take over Hong Kong services, a route well suited for the aircraft, followed by Los Angeles (June), Bangkok (July) and finally San Francisco and Sao Paulo as more 777s join the fleet. But it will probably never again create such a stir as during its premiere on a rainy and humid January morning in Zurich.