MIAMI — To say, the last few years have been “eventful” for American Airlines is an understatement. In many ways it has been a tail of two airlines. These litany of lows are well documented: Chapter 11 bankruptcy, record financial losses, corporate passengers and accounts so key to the yields abandoning the airline in droves, operational disruptions caused by labor discontent, seats that became unattached during flight last summer, an aggressive merger overture / takeover from profitable, but much smaller USAirways, and even a freak computer reservation systems meltdown on April 16, 2013 that paralyzed much of the system for a good part of the day. Often times these types of perilous events spell a downward spiral or at the very least retrenchment.
Simultaneously, American has flown in another direction: expansion, profitability, and upgrades. In July 2011 American placed the largest single airliner order in history, booking $13 billion USD worth of 460 Airbus A320 family and Boeing 737 airliners. In November, 2011 just days before the bankruptcy filing, American became the first airline in the United States to order the world’s most efficient and successful long-haul airliner, the Boeing 777-300ER.
During 2012, American became the most prolific carrier in equipping its pilots and cabin crew with iPADs and Samsung Galaxy tablets respectively. American and British Airways finally consummated the decades long joint venture that gives them dominance on the USA-London Heathrow routes. AA pulled off a similar hotly contested coup over Delta and United, creating a joint venture with JAL to become competitive between the USA and Japan, helping offset American’s weak #3 position in Asia. Beginning in May 2013, American will debut DFW-Seoul, Korea service. In July, 2012 American announced a new transcontinental in-flight product debuting in November 2013 using the new Airbus A321s. Previews of this service suggest it is destined to catapult one of the carrier’s highest premium routes from archaic and tired to state-of-the-art elegance. The all-important financial side of the company is showing a strengthening pulse as well. Just a few days into 2013 AA reported revenue of $24.9 billion in 2012, the highest in company history and a full-year operating profit of $494 million, excluding special items, a $749 million improvement over 2011. In its first quarter of 2013, American actually posted an operating profit excluding small items of $125 million and $6.1 billion in first quarter revenue – the airline’s highest ever in Q1. On January 17, 2013 AA unveiled a controversial new livery and branding positioning “The New American” replacing a 45 year-old iconic livery that was the most venerable in U.S. history.
A few weeks later on January 31, 2013, American inaugurated its first Boeing 777-300ER service with a flight between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was onboard this historic flight and my expectations were absolutely exceeded in nearly every way. Other reviews and passenger reviews and press testimonials resoundingly echoed my effusive impressions. Amidst the controversy, strife, and uncertainty, virtually everyone from press to passengers to employees agreed the 777-300ER was not only a home run but perhaps as one Executive Platinum passenger called it “the most luxurious plane and service of any airline in the Western Hemisphere”. Restating the unobvious, these changes for the bigger and better are exactly the antithesis of the way most airlines, and indeed companies act in a bankruptcy organization.
American now has 5 Boeing 777-300ERs on strength. Since the Sao Paulo inaugural, these latter day “Luxury Liners” have been rolled out on the prestige routes of Dallas Ft. Worth DFW – London Heathrow LHR (March 2nd), New York JFK to London Heathrow LHR (March 15), New York JFK and Sao Paulo GRU (April 2nd), with another 777-300ER daily rotation between JFK and LHR and the inaugural 773 service between Los Angeles LAX and London Heathrow.
Oh, and lest we forget one other thing… On February 14, 2013, Valentine’s Day, American and USAirways finally did consummate their merger. This marriage “not of equals” was a case of the guppy swallowing the whale. AA’s stockholders received the lions share of shares at 72%, the AA brand (but not the controversial new livery) would be the one to survive, and the AA HQ would remain in Ft. Worth Texas HQ, but Doug Parker and his management team would be the conquerors in control of what will become the world’s largest airline when it is completed sometime in mid-to-late 2014.
As they say in reality TV, “you couldn’t make this stuff up even if you tried”. American lurched between severe turbulence and smooth air more often then a flight deviating around summertime storms. When in these kind of unpredictable flying conditions, the best advice is “keep your seatbelts fastened”. What can’t be debated is American’s Team needs a reason to celebrate. What better way to do it then with a true Delivery Flight with all the “pomp and circumstance”? Due to the quick service entry of the 777-300ER and rebranding, American never really had any sort of the obligatory special delivery ceremony either at the Big Boeing Twin’s Everett factory birthplace or at the Dallas/Ft. Worth base normally afforded a new type. With a complete absence of fanfare, American took delivery of its first 2 777-300s (N717AN and N718AN) on December 11th and December 19th, 2012. Beginning around January 1, 2013, these anonymously painted aircraft were flown on unannounced flights to Miami, over Mexico, and around the hubs to test systems such as the new Panasonic satellite internet, a first for a U.S. carrier. When the inaugural came on January 31, 2013 the airline’s celebration was further muted by the merger discussions then reaching fevered pitch. Finally, due to Brazilian visa issues, many of the invited press and VIPs weren’t able to travel on the inaugural and instead sampled the new jet well over a month after its entry-into-service on individual flights. One way of looking at this was as a soft launch with the Grand Opening to hopefully follow.
On April 24-25, American’s Boeing 777-300 did in fact have its Grand Opening / Coming Out Party with a 2-day delivery flight event that we were fortunate enough to be invited on. The star of the celebration would be American’s 6th Boeing 777-300ER N722AN (L/N XXX). The location: the World’s “Mecca of Commercial Aviation” – Seattle, Washington. With VIP tours of the 737 and 777 factories, a handover ceremony, a few surprises thrown in, and culminating with the actual delivery flight from Seattle’s Boeing Field, this was not an event to be missed. Usually delivery flights are a perk not open to many members of the press or generally public as they are reserved for employees and crew. They are unscheduled FAA part 91 flights. Often times they operate with little cabin service as if a flight operates with less then 19 passengers, no flight attendant is required. Every airline handles them differently. Some carriers press the aircraft almost directly into service while others make each delivery at least somewhat of a special event. In this case, it would be a first class event. As a bonus, we were joined by Brandon Farris – @brandonsblog of AirlineReporter.com, Jason Rabinowitz – @AirlineFlyer of NYCAviation.com, @AAdvantageGeek, Tulsa based AvGeek and KOKI-TV Fox 23 Chief Meteorologist James Aydellott, and a few other members of the press.
Our “AAdventure” began with a trip to Boeing’s Renton plant. Renton is a real treat as it is not open for public tours and photography is generally prohibited. This is the most prolific airliner plant in history, and one key to American’s fleet renewal plan. At a relatively compact 278 hemmed-in acres, Renton lives in the shadow of its larger sibling plant in Everett, but in terms of importance to airlines and the Boeing Company Renton plays second fiddle to no one. Interestingly enough we learn the Renton plant was the largest building in the world by volume until Everett was constructed in the late 1960s. Renton is the exclusive final assembly home of the world’s best selling airliner, the Boeing 737, while Airbus builds its A320 family jets in 3 locations, with a 4th to come in Mobile.
The dizzying “tale of the tape” continues with more world-beating stats. As of a few years ago, Renton produced 42% of the world’s entire jet fleet. Throughout its 80 year history beginning as a plant in WWII for the B-29 where up to 150 planes per month were produced. Since then Renton has been the home of the entire production run of the 707, 720, 727, 757, BBJs, and all but 271 of the world’s 7,491 delivered 737s as of February, 2013. With a bulging order book of over 3,166 jets between the current Next Gens and future Max variant, 200 along of which are destined to American, the Renton factory rolls out a new aircraft on each of its 2 moving production lines every 11 days. A third line produces the military 737 version, the P-8A Poseidon in a separate building. Boeing is now preparing a third production line in the main 737 Renton final assembly factory for the new 737 Max and most impressively just stepped up its monthly production operating on 2 shifts per day to 38 aircraft per month – a record for any commercial airliner production. In the first quarter of 2014, that rate will increase to 42 aircraft per month. This was accomplished by adding a position to line 2 to allow both lines to output 19 aircraft per month. Line 1 slowed from 21 to 19 while line 2 went from 14 to 19 aircraft per month. Boeing will step up the supply chain to get to 42 aircraft per month but the line capacity is already in place. Even at that increased rapid production rate, it will take over 6 years to clear the order books. This relatively compact factory of 760,000 square feet is undergoing a number of changes to cope with the production surge and new Max line (parallel to 737 Line 1). This is necessitating the construction of a new 75,000 square foot building which houses buyer-furnished equipment. That’s a lot of “wow” considering not that long ago Boeing actually contemplated alternate 737 production sites such as the acquired McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach or shutting down Renton completely. In fact, quite a bit of Boeing owned land around the factory was sold off, some of this property has become a shopping center. “Renton the factory” is literally surrounded by “Renton the city”. Space is so tight and the production supply chain just in time, there are fuselages waiting in the parking lot after being transported via railroad from supplier Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas.
After a quick visit to the Renton plant’s employee restaurant Rosie’s Diner (named after “Rosie The Riveter”, American had another treat up its sleeve: a visit to the Boeing wide-body plant at Paine Field where the 777-300 is built. Once at Everett, we met a chartered American Boeing 737-800 carrying 101 selected key American team members who would be joining us for the 777 tour, handover event, and delivery flight. They were chosen from around the system for going above and beyond the call of duty during the restructuring. More on these staff AA refers to as “some of our rockstars” in our next post.
As we drive in, we pass by the Boeing flight line, teeming with brand new 747s, 777s, and especially 787s lying in wait toward the largest building in the world by volume. A big highlight is a Dreamlifter with its rear fuselage swung open as well as 2 of British Airways (AA’s JV Partner’s) first 787s. We also spot the new Everett Boeing Delivery Center that opened less then weeks prior to our visit in the distance.
The Boeing Everett Factory building alone covers 98 acres. Originally completed for the 747 in the 1968, this massive fortress has been expanded twice from the original 42.8 acres to 63.3 acres in 1980 for the 767 expansion to the present size for the 777. With its eye-popping factoids, Everett is a place that would make Gulliver seem small. It is 114’ 2” tall and measures 1,614’ X 3,500’. At one time, the building had its own microclimates that created rain and clouds. The four hanger doors are 300’ X 8’, which is about the same as the size of an American football field. The largest digital mural graphic in the world on the south side of the plant is more than 100,000 square feet. At 4.3 million square feet, 75 National Football League fields could fit inside. There is no climate control. In the winter, machinery, body heat and residual heat from the light keeps it warm, in the Summer the doors are open as A/C. Inside, amidst all this activity it is remarkably orderly and quiet.
About 110,000 people visit Everett alone, but photography and up close access is generally prohibited. We begin on the overlook where we witness 747-8s, 787-8s, and the 777 lines. This being a VIP tour, we were shepherded over on the floor to the single Boeing 777 line where American’s 777-300ERs are produced, including 1 just beginning production while another is in paint. These are American’s 7th and 8th 777-300ERs scheduled to be delivered as they are no longer taking any more 777-200ERs. Whereas the 787 production line is remarkably uncluttered due to its unique but not altogether successful off-site supply chain, the 777 line is chock a block full of tooling and parts. Looks are deceiving, however. This impressive, efficient U-shaped moving production line (inspired by the Renton 737 lone) now produces 8.3 777s per month in what’s believed to be the largest integrated moving line in the world. Working 5 days a week, round the clock in 3 shifts, It moves at a rate of about 1.8 inches per minute. The 3,000,000 parts provided by 500 global suppliers produce a 777 every 48 days. When the program began production in 1994, it took well over 100 days to produce one. With 1,066 of the world’s best selling wide-body airliner delivered since production began in 1994 and another 400 on order, this line is crucial to Boeing’s wide-body cash cow. After a 777 is rolled out, it is about 20 days to the first Boeing test flight or sooner if paint is happening off-site). From roll out to customer delivery is usually around 30 days.
After a day of sensual overload, we were taken back to our hotels for a few minutes of rest, as “The Big Show” was about to begin. Handover events and deliveries are often held at Paine Field at the Future of Flight Museum and in the future the recently opened Everett Boeing Delivery Facility, American chose to go even bigger by holding its acceptance event for N722AN at Seattle’s Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. This museum, the larges private air and space museum in the world, is known to nearly everyone with a serious interest in aviation, particularly commercial aviation. Among the museum’s many artifacts are the first Boeing 747 “City of Everett”, the 737 prototype, the first presidential jet, a VC-137B, British Airways Concorde G-BOAG, the only one west of Washington D.C; an American Airlines Boeing 727-200, an ex-Lockheed Air Canada Lockheed L-1049 Super Connie, the only surviving Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, the only surviving example of one of Boeing’s first airliners – the 80A, Boeing’s first factory “The Red Barn”, and now the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. The Museum of Flight can easily occupy a full day or two, but we only had an hour to tour before America’s Acceptance Event.
As mentioned before after all the American team members has been through, they deserved a party. American invited 101 of their “AA Rockstars” to come along on the 777-300ER delivery flight they dubbed “The Rockstar Ride”. These handpicked folks who had gone above and beyond the call of duty during the restructuring were chosen by their peers, management, and senior leadership from around the system to take part in this special event. They were treated to a VIP tour of the 777 line and then a Boeing / GE sponsored gala event at the Museum of Flight. In a very thoughtful gesture, American invited Boeing to select 6 employees to come along on the delivery flight. Once at DFW, the Boeing team would be feted to some true Texas hospitality and tours of American maintenance, IOC, flight training, and even be allowed to try out the emergency evacuation simulator.
Boeing and GE made their guests feel very welcome with their own blend of “Flagship Service” with a delicious meal of Pacific Northwest Salmon, Steak, and Halibut as well as “sommelier worthy” wine. The Senior VP of Global Sales for Boeing, toasted the American team by saying “This 777-300ER will be a moneymaker. You have been through tough times and weathered the storm. You will once again be the dominant carrier like you were for many decades. We are proud to be your partner and look forward to the New American’s resurgence as the premiere carrier worldwide. We’ll be doing this again in about a year and a half when you take delivery of your first 787”. After thunderous applause, he presented the company with a large scale 777-300ER model for display at AA Headquarters. GE then presented its own gift to American, a gorgeous sculpture made from a fan blade of the 777-300ERs engine, the GE90-115B. The AvGeeks in the crowd like myself salivated over these two gifts.
Then came some very special prize drawings. American raffled off the cabin classes the teams would be flying in, 2 777-300ER models, the names of the 3 employees who would sign the delivery certificate, perform the ribbon cutting, and receive ceremonial keys. With that, the event was over. We all headed back to our hotels, well most of us anyway, as Delivery Day would start bright and early the next day. What we didn’t know at the time was that there would be a sudden, unexpected change of plans….