WASHINGTON — After the cavalcade of events of the day before, the delicious dinner, and the generous open bar, we were all a bit tired but the adrenaline of the crescendo flight stirred us bring us all back to life. The next day began bright and early as we were picked up at our hotels for the short drive to King County International Airport, otherwise known as Boeing Field. BFI was Seattle’s main passenger airport until Seattle / Tacoma Airport (otherwise known as “Sea-Tac”) came online in the late 1940s, but remains a freight hub. Boeing uses BFI as a test flight base and delivery center for the Boeing 737 and for certain flight test operations such as with the 787. Real scheduled passenger service here is non-existent, though Southwest tried as recently as 2005. Flying away on a 777 from Boeing Field would be a bonus.
Before we delve into the delivery flight, it’s instructive to detail how an aircraft, especially a new type enters service. Darrel Boyd, American’s Resident Representative at Boeing, has been with American Airlines for nearly 30 years and has overseen a majority of the deliveries since the 757 back in 1989. The jovial Boyd, who clearly has a great deal of responsibility resting on his shoulders describes his skills as equal parts “inspector”, “mechanic”, and “lawyer”. Boyd has over 400 aircraft deliveries under his belt. Stationed in Seattle after moving up from the Tulsa base, he oversees American’s interests and production at Everett and Renton. He describes the steps leading to final acceptance and delivery which occur over a 5 day timeline for a large twin-aisle aircraft like the 777-300ER. A smaller aircraft like a Boeing 737-800 has a 3 day acceptance timeline.
On Day 1, the American acceptance crew performs what’s called a Customer Walk. American’s CURE Team (composed of Don, 2 inspectors, and 3 flight attendants) checks every seat, in-flight entertainment IFE system, lavatory, galley, indicator, call button, light switch, power port, window shade, etc. Along the way Boyd personally inspects every inch of the exterior checking for even the smallest discrepancies such as a paint chip. In essence they do a complete shake down of the cabin of the aircraft.
Next comes the all important acceptance flight. Captain Jim Dees, the Fleet Captain of American’s 777 and upcoming 787 fleet walked us exclusively through the process. Dees has been the fleet captain for 7 years, prior to this he was the Chief Pilot at American’s home DFW hub, and has been with AA since January, 1986. Dees has been a check airman on the 727, and Captain on the 757/767, and MD-80. He still flies line trips, as does his wife who is a Captain for Southwest.
Before a plane is delivered to an airline, the manufacturer in this case Boeing flies the aircraft on what’s referred to as a B-1 Flight. These are Boeing’s test flights flown exclusively with Boeing flight crew and engineers aboard. After Boeing completes its own tests, approximately 1 week before delivery, the airline customer undertakes its own test-flight, called a C-1 Customer Acceptance Flight. Not every airline opts for these but American undertakes these missions with all their new aircraft. In American’s case, the acceptance flight is flown roughly a week prior to delivery. In this case, our flight of the day N722AN had its acceptance flight Friday April 19th. At this point the plane is still the property of the manufacturer. This is generally a two-day process.
Once the Customer Walk is complete an American flight test pilot, such as Captain Dees, will be joined by a Boeing Systems Specialist who work together to complete the cockpit ground checks. They perform a 2-3 hour check of every switch and system in the cockpit: actualizing flight controls, pressurizing hydraulics, avionics test, control surfaces, radios, etc. There are often some write-ups, but generally not enough to prevent the official acceptance flight.
The Acceptance Flight typically happens the next day. In the 777-300ER’s case, it’s a 2-3 hour flight from Paine Field, location of the 77W’s massive Everett based factory. The crew meets around 8AM for a flight briefing. On the flight deck are the AA Captain, Boeing Captain, and a system specialist. The CURE Team of 10-12 people and a cabin specialist are in the back. The aircraft is loaded with 75-80,000 pounds of fuel with 15,000 pounds of fuel in the center tanks for to check center tank fuel functionality and later the fuel dump test. Even with the aircraft very light, the crew performs a maximum thrust take-off test and thus literally “rockets” to FL40 (40,000 feet). During the takeoff and climb when above 10,000′ all normal indications and functions are observed and tested. After leveling at cruise altitude, normal functions of all navigation, communications and FMC are checked, followed by a cabin over-pressurization and depressurization where designated oxygen masks drop. The engines are then quickly reduced from max thrust to idle then back to max thrust to confirm fuel scheduling and all parameters function properly at altitude without hesitation or flameout. During the initial descent an MMO (Max Mach Operating Speed) is checked as the aircraft is flown beyond the red line. When complete the engines are reduced to idle to thermally stabilize them before being shut down one at a time to confirm the auto relight system works properly. When engine operation returns to normal the aircraft accelerates once again to test the flap blow up feature that prevents flap damage if flaps are inadvertently extended above their max speed. Then as the airliner descends to a block altitude of 15-17,000 feet the aircraft speed will be reduced to it’s minimum operating speeds during the Stall Warning/Auto Slat/Auto-throttle test. Once completed a check of the Alternate/Secondary Flaps will precede the descent to Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake Washington for a coupled ILS approach to a missed approach at 50′ above the ground followed by an auto-land touch and go. According to Captain Dees “ These flights are a lot of fun and flying the aircraft to the edge of its envelope gives me a great deal of confidence in the reliability of this aircraft and the engineering and workmanship Boeing builds into each one of their 777s. On normal passenger flights, fortunately, we never get this opportunity.”
Captain Dees detailed the 2:42 acceptance flight of American’s sixth and newest Boeing 777-300ER N722AN, BOE 306 which departed at 9:09AM PDT on Friday April 19, 2013. “First, we had our briefings and operated out of the just opened Boeing Delivery Center which is very nice and much more comfortable than our old location at the EMC building. We departed PAE (Snohomish County Paine Field) with light rain and a 500’ ceiling. We went out to TOU (Tatoosh) to do high altitude work then PDT and down to MWH (Moses Lake Grant County International). We did one approach to 50′ at Moses Lake and another touch and go before proceeding back to PAE. On the way back from MWH we did the EROPS check or BUG check to make sure all backup electrical sources work properly. We remove electrical power including both backup generators causing the RAT or Ram Air Turbine to drop out. It’s a small propeller that falls into the slipstream behind the right main gear. It has a generator and hydraulic pump on it that provides basic electrical power and enough hydraulic power to operate the aircraft while backup systems are reinstated. We also did a couple of other checks followed by the RNAV Z approach to PAE (Paine Field). On approach, the ceiling was 700’. We then taxied to the other end of the runway and did a high speed abort, accelerating to 90 knots then aborting, to confirm all systems functions properly. The Aircraft flew great and all systems worked perfectly.”
These flights are typically without incident and only rarely require a second acceptance flight, known as the C-2 flight. Acceptance flights have a dual role, to confirm everything works as advertised before the aircraft is purchased but more importantly to make sure everything works properly before American puts the first passenger on one of their new aircraft. They would much rather failures happen on a test flight then in service. As complex as a modern jet aircraft is, nothing is perfect out of the hanger and there are often a few issues that are quickly negotiated between the airline and manufacturer as to whom will handle.
On Days 3-4, there are usually 200-300 small and not so small discrepancies found. In N722AN’s case there were a few minor paint flaws. These are written up and then its negotiated who will fix what and where. Some items will be repaired on the spot while others will be undertaken by the customer, such as American in DFW. This final QC work involves Boeing, American, and vendors such as IFE and seat manufacturers. The vendors or Boeing reimburse the customer if the customer has to make the repairs. Finally on day 4, Boyd completes a records review of all components on the aircraft and their serial numbers. As you can imagine, this is a lengthy process.
Day 5 is the long anticipated Delivery Day where the airliner is handed over to the airline. Boyd compares this process to closing on a house. Usually beginning at 730AM PST, these 90 minute-2 hour meetings involve the accepting pilots, the airline’s representative or executives like Boyd, the banks and customer financial teams to make the final money transfer, and the FAA who delivers to the airline the Certificate of Air Worthiness. The airline’s representative then signs the vast ream of documents transferring ownership of the aircraft from Boeing and some vendors. After a handshake and a ceremonial handover of the keys, a multi-million piece of flying aluminum is now the property of its new owner.
Once the aircraft is accepted and ownership is transferred to the airline, the delivery pilots (usually check airman) fly the aircraft back to base from Boeing’s Delivery Center at Paine Field. In American’s case, the 737s are delivered to the Tulsa base while the 777s are delivered to DFW. At the maintenance base, American’s maintenance and engineering personnel accomplish their own checks and airline customization items and make final preparations to introduce the aircraft into regular service under FAA part 121 rules. This process can take from 5-30 days and sometimes more depending on the aircraft type such as with a new plane like the 777-300ER. Initially the FAA is very involved in the certification and entry into service and the airline is completing crew familiarization.
Boeing 777 and other Everett built aircraft delivery flights are typically made from Everett where the Boeing Customer Acceptance Center is. American chose to reposition its 777-300 ER down to Boeing Field for our delivery, the site of the previous nights’ handover event. Our 777-300ER was delivered from Everett’s Paine Field to Seattle’s King County Boeing Field as BOE flight 306, 18 minutes en-route with a maximum altitude of 4,200 feet. This is probably the shortest sector this 777-300ER will ever see again its lifetime!
On the morning of Thursday April 25, 2013, the delivery flight had finally arrived. As we pulled up to our 777-300ER, we noticed the registration read N719AN instead of N722AN. N719AN was Boeing’s 3rd Boeing 777-300ER to be delivered. The aircraft we were supposed to be delivering back to DFW, N722AN, AA’s 6th and newest 777-300ER, was positioned at the other end of the Boeing Field flight line. The brand new N722AN was in fact formally delivered to American Airlines the day before and flown to Boeing Field for the event, but a last minute paper work issue would not allow this aircraft to be flown with passengers. Having been alerted to this the afternoon before, American was determined to not allow this hick-up alter the day’s events. AA resourcefully ferried up from DFW an identical 777-300ER, the aforementioned N719AN late the night before to perform the honors. With 2 aircraft assigned to each new 777-300ER route, and the LAX-LHR debut a few weeks away, this temporary extra capacity thankfully allowed American to make the equipment switch. Our original aircraft, N722AN, followed us less than an hour later sans passengers for its delivery to DFW.
Thus, our delivery flight in fact became a “re-delivery flight”. With the still new, it not quite brand new N719AN, acting as our replacement magic carpet ride for the day, the invited guests swarmed the 777-300ER for individual photos and even a little bit of “tire kicking”. Boeing provided a breakfast under a party tent, complete with a DJ, making for a very festive mood in spite of the somewhat disappointing change in plans.
Boeing Field’s 737 delivery flight-line and the gleaming 777-300ER in the warm Seattle sunshine were the suitable backdrop for the brief final handover ceremony. First up, the signing of the delivery certificate by 3 American employees who won the honors the night before, who were joined by American VP/Treasurer Peter Warlick and Boeing 777 VP/GM Elizabeth Lund, followed by the handover of the ceremonial keys to the airplane. Just before boarding began, there were group photo shots with 2 banners: one commemorating the delivery and one honoring a seriously ill “AA Rockstar”, DFW agent Angie Barakat, who was unable to make the flight. The atmosphere was absolutely electric, but also emotional for this beloved AA team member.
Finally, everyone gathered for the big ribbon cutting on the red carpet and after the parade of hoopla, boarding for the appropriately numbered flight 9777 began. As this was a non-scheduled flight, there was no security checkpoint just the showing of our identification. Virtually everyone carried their baggage on. With Boeing security acting as “gate agents”, we boarded via air stairs – an unusual treat on an American 777. American’s new 777-300ER fleet and cabin service have received rave reviews, but for many of the AA staff, it was their first time onboard the aircraft. We watched their positive and proud reactions as they boarded the aircraft and indeed throughout the flight, believing these feel good impressions would spread through the system. The aircraft was indeed immaculate. Yes, there was perhaps a slight disappointment at not inhaling that “new aircraft smell”, but N719AN was still immaculate and if you weren’t paying attention to the registration then you would never know the difference. In fact, many of the AA’ers onboard didn’t know and for the most didn’t seem to care.
So you may be asking yourselves “Where did the press get to sit?” The impressive new Business Class or maybe even the world-class Flagship suites? The answer: none of the above. This was a flight for American’s “Rock Stars” who were the real stars of the event. They all deservedly occupied the Premium and Main Cabin Extra cabins which were raffled off the previous night. Our commemorative boarding passes assigned us to the Main Cabin. The seating was first come first serve so I hustled to bulkhead seat 20L (which in my case was 20J-L). The cabin was sparsely populated which left us with at least 3 seats apiece to ourselves, so we weren’t complaining. At times, we all occupied entire rows just to test out the new 10-abreast economy seating. We didn’t really find them to be noticeably tighter then the 9-abreast seats on the 777-200. Even though we were in the way back, the jaded press and bloggers applauded American for doing the right thing in putting its staff first on this flight.
Right on time, we pushed back at 11:11AM. AvGeek treats awaited as we taxied by the F-22 Raptor 757 testbed, the Museum of Flight, and P-8 Poseidons (military 737s) before lining up on the runway. Even though this was a non-revenue flight the safety video demo still played. After that video ended, that was about the last normal thing on the flight.
At 11:32AM, we began our less then 30 second de-rated GE90-115B powered take-off roll to the northwest from BFI’s runway 13R/31L. Our “Magnificent 7” performed a wide turn to the southeast, affording those on the left side of the aircraft stunning views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Saint Helens. After about 22 minutes in the air, we leveled off at 39,000 feet. Our flight plan too us over Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle before descent into DFW.
The seat-belt signs quickly extinguished and the party, more evocative of a 1970s flight, began. While some passengers chose to watch movies or surf the web via satellite on the new Panasonic eX2 IFE, many mingled with each other while snapping pictures and touring the cabin. The Flagship Suites had a full service set-up which, along with the bar attracted the most photography and attention.
We were allowed brief access to the off limits cabin crew rest area “Sky Loft” located above a spiral stair case at the rear of the fuselage. Many of us wouldn’t have minded a nap in one of the 8 crew bunks. A flight attendant demonstrated the emergency crew rest evacuation hatch through an overhead bin.
In another surprise, AA drew names for a few mores sets of 777-300ER commemorative keys. NYCAviation co-editor Jason Rabinowitz was a lucky winner. Given he coveted the large 777 models from the previous nice festivities, these keys were better then a consolation prize. Yep, this was definitely not a normal flight.
The LED lighting on the AA 777-300ER is a signature feature so a full on lighting demo was in order. 2 modes in particular, named “Party” and “AA Party” (see if you can guess which is which) attracted the most “ohhhhh’s and ahhhhh’s”.
The American 777-300ER’s exclusive to a U.S. carrier stand-up bar was stocked with a variety of snacks as well as cups of champagne to toast the new aircraft and 2 employees birthdays. In a nice touch, simulated flickering lighted candles and bouquets of flowers adorned the bar. This was a very popular area for photography and convivial conversation.
At one point, everyone onboard was asked to come forward and sign the banner for their ill American colleague that read “Keep Fighting Angie”. Eager to honor here, the entire passenger compliment promptly lined up in the aisle down the right side to make their way to the front galley to sign the poster. I jokingly wondered out-loud if the cabin had to increase thrust on the port side’s engine just to compensate for the additional weight on the other side of the plane. With turbulence forecast over the Rockies, we were all asked to take our seats, but instead of the typical automated announcement, the jokester purser said “Not to be a party pooper but we’re expecting some bumps so ya’all need to take your seats. Sooooorrrry! We’ll let you know when it’s safe to get up and party again!”
The reviews of the “New American” inflight cuisine have been glowing. Our flight, catered by Boeing, wasn’t the typical AA on-board fare. In all classes, there was a choice of box lunches ala that old “American Bistro”. My meal consisting of a honey dijon ham sandwich, Kettle potato chips, and oatmeal cookie wouldn’t win a James Beard Award, but I wasn’t complaining. There wasn’t wine or alcohol aboard either, but that certainly didn’t get in the way of the party atmosphere. The idea was for everyone, including cabin crew, to enjoy the flight and a big service would have run counter to that.
With 33 minutes left in the flight, we began our descent into DFW. Our Captain came on the P/A and made a joke that even though “we are called the senior, old guys, we don’t use walkers to get around. We just use big aircraft to get around instead”. This most atypical of inflight announcement drew lots of laughs. The purser followed the Captain’s announcement with his own zinger: “put away all electronics, stow tray tables, fasten seat-belts and well, you all know the rest. You all work for an airline! But seriously you all are the best of American”. The loud applause boomed through the cabin.
After 3 hours and 9 minutes aloft, our 777-300ER made a smooth as butter “grease job” landing at DFW and taxied over to AA’s DFW maintenance base nick-named “West Hollywood” that according to the purser had “once belonged to our competitor” (Delta). Following our traditional water cannon salute, our purser announced “we would each be handed towels upon disembarking to hand dry the aircraft off”. A few of us wondered out loud how this humorous purser would’ve done competing on NBC’s old comedy reality show “Last Comic Standing”.
With that, we de-boarded via air-stairs from door 2R onto the tarmac at DFW. Before heading our own separate ways, there was a couple more group shots including one with the “Keep Fighting Angie” banner that would be presented to their ill colleague. This was fitting and moving crescendo to what was even more special then many inaugural flights that I have been on. It was a unique experience to celebrate along-side an airline’s employees who had all been to hell and battled back. Company and employee relations aren’t anywhere near perfect, but this trip did make a positive impression not only on those on the flight but we were told the significant morale building gesture had impacts across the system.
Though American Airlines has made major operational, branding, passenger service, re-equipping, and financial strides, the skies aren’t completely devoid of clouds. The American / USAirways merger planning has already begun and it’s scheduled to close in the 3rd quarter of 2013. Then the hard work and uncertainty really begins to make these two airlines into the world’s largest airline. In many respects, these AA’ers are only half-way along on their journey back to remaking American into one of the world’s most preferred airlines. In my view, an airline’s most important investment isn’t in its jet fuel, shiny new planes, fancy new branding, or upgraded cabin service. American’s most important investment is in its people. Even with Boeing and GE chipping in, a celebratory flight like this might seem ostentatious and expensive for an airline still in bankruptcy. In my view, this money couldn’t have been better spent.
Full disclosure: American Airlines provided lodging, meals, and access to the delivery flight at no cost to Airchive. We did pay for transportation to Seattle and from Dallas/Ft. Worth.
Special thanks to: Andrea Huguely and Kent Powell, American Airlines Media Relations and Communications for their inviting us along and for their hospitality.