LOS ANGELES – The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe in the past 10 months. Its greatest impact has been on the travel industry, specifically commercial aviation. In addition to many airlines going bankrupt and shutting down, airlines have chosen to expedite the retirements of entire fleets due to the sharp decrease in demand for air travel.
We have seen British Airways (BA), KLM (KL), and Qantas (QF) retire their flagship 747-400s, as well as many A380 retirements from all over the world.
Airlines from the United States have likely cut the most fleet types. Spirit Airlines (NK) and Alaska Airlines (AS) have both retired their A319s. American Airlines (AA) has permanently parked its fleet of 757-200s, 767-300ERs, ERJ-190s, A330-200s, and A330-300s while United Airlines (UA) has parked its original Pratt & Whitney powered 757-200s and have their 767-400ERs in long-term storage. Delta Air Lines (DL) has already retired their 737-700, MD-88s, MD-90s, and on October 31, 2020, they retired a long-time stalwart of their long-haul fleet, the Boeing 777.
Delta first placed an order for eight Boeing 777-200ERs on November 13, 1997. The first of these aircraft, N860DA, was delivered to Delta on March 23, 1999. It’s first flight was a few weeks later on May 1, 1999, connecting its main base in Atlanta (ATL) with London-Gatwick (LGW) as well as training flights to Orlando (MCO).
Initially, the Boeing 777s were tasked with flying between ATL and LGW, ATL and Frankfurt (FRA), and the former hub of Cincinnati (CVG) to LGW. However, they were very quickly grounded on November 1 due to a Pilot contract issue. This took 29 days to negotiate, and soon, they were back in the air.
From 1999 through 2007, the Boeing 777-200ERs operated trans-Atlantic flights to larger European cities and Tel Aviv. They also used these aircraft for trans-Pacific flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to both Tokyo (NRT) and SkyTeam hub, Seoul (ICN). The aircraft also made a daily domestic flight between LAX and ATL to rotate the aircraft between bases. This was a favorite for the aviation community.
Introduction of the LRs
Delta converted 10 of the options they had for Boeing 737NGs to the 777-200LR. These aircraft were ordered for Delta to start service to ultra-long-haul destinations. The first aircraft, N701DN was delivered to DL on February 29, 2008. In a large ceremony, it was officially named, “The Delta Spirit” in honor of Delta employees. This came after the retirement of Delta’s first 767, N102DA, in 2006. This aircraft was bought in 1983 by DL employees for the airline as a way of supporting the airline after it sustained losses after deregulation.
After the ceremony, N701DN made its first revenue flight from ATL to LAX on March 8. DL also deployed the LR version on routes like New York-Kennedy (JFK) to Mumbai (BOM), LAX to Sydney (SYD), and ATL to Johannesburg (JNB) & Cape Town (CPT). They also replaced the 777-200ER on various trans-Pacific routes as well.
Just a few weeks later on April 15, DL announced that it would merge with Northwest Airlines. The merger completely changed the framework of DL’s fleet. DL was predominantly a Boeing airline and Northwest mainly flew Airbuses. The Northwest merger brought A330-200s and A330-300s to DL, along with Boeing 747-400s. Prior to the merger, DL had only operated one foreign-made aircraft: The Airbus A310, from 1991 to 1995.
The End of the Road
With DL now open to operating aircraft not made by Boeing, and with the delays to the 787 program, DL decided to expand its Airbus widebody fleet by ordering 25 A350-900s and 25 A330-900neos in November 2014. The Boeing 777’s served a real purpose in the DL fleet, but their end was in sight, albeit, far down the road. That was until the events of this year unfolded.
In mid-March when the fleet began to shrink as domestic and international travel became virtually non-existent, DL immediately parked 3 ERs and 6 LRs, which accounted for half the fleet. Seven of these aircraft never left storage. In May, Delta announced that all Boeing 777s would be retired in the third quarter of 2020, but the deadline was later extended to the end of October. This was really no surprise, especially with the emergence of the new Airbus widebodies. Additionally, since the 777 fleet utilizes two different engine types (Rolls Royce Trent 800s on the ERs and General Electric GE90s on the LRs), their retirement would significantly reduce complexity. The rest of the frames were mainly relegated to charters and cargo runs to FRA, SYD, and BOM. Until September 4, they were routinely scheduled on the LAX-ATL route, but even that was cut.
Throughout October, DL retired most of the fleet, except for two aircraft that were doing cargo flights from JFK and ATL, N701DN and N703DN. DL decided to retire these aircraft to Victorville (VCV) via LAX to allow 777 fans to say their last goodbyes. Each of the two flights, ATL-LAX on October 30, and JFK-LAX on October 31 were sold under random “ferry flight” numbers. However, in the week before the flights, both were changed to DL8777 to signify the importance of the flights.
The Final Flight
Airways was lucky enough to secure a ticket on the final Delta 777 passenger flight from New York-Kennedy (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) on October 31. Although the flight was only at 1:00 PM local, festivities began in the American Express Centurion and Delta Sky Club lounges for Delta frequent fliers, all who made quick weekend trips to experience this flight. The main features were bottles of champagne that cost just about the same as a Main Cabin ticket on the flight.
At gate B38 of JFK’s Terminal 4 sat N701DN, the first Delta 777-200LR. “The Spirit of Delta” would now have the honor of operating the first and last Boeing 777-200LR flights for the airline. It was announced at the gate that this would in fact be the final passenger 777 for the airline, but there were no speeches from DL executives. Unlike many flights these days, there was a crowd of people who couldn’t wait to get on-board. The glass jetway was lined with people getting pictures with the aircraft, so much so, that going from terminal to aircraft took almost 10 minutes.
Once on-board, a line to get into the cockpit formed but was quickly dissipated by the Flight Crew in an attempt to have an on-time departure. The flight was operated by Captain Tim Freeman and First Officer Scott Gottschang.
Everyone quickly took their seats and the aircraft began its pushback at 1:01, a small delay of just one minute. Upon taxing, the aircraft was to receive a water cannon salute from the JFK Unit of the New York Fire Department. They had practiced just before, but the salute was canceled just 15 minutes prior to pushback due to “COVID-related circumstances.”
The still dry aircraft taxied to Runway 4L for a very quick takeoff at 1:13 PM, using just under 5,000 ft. of runway. After takeoff, and a long turn to the west, the aircraft climbed to its initial cruising altitude at FL380. After an hour, the aircraft climbed to FL400, where it remained until it began its descent into LAX.
Once the aircraft reached its cruising altitude, the service began. Due to COVID restrictions, the Main Cabin, passengers were given a snack bag, containing a small Dasani water bottle, a small package of Cheez-Its, a famous Delta Biscoff package, a moist towelette, and a napkin. Those not in economy were also offered beer and wine, while those in Delta One were offered snack boxes as well. However, there were a few changes because of the important flight.
Inside the package was also a pack of Delta-branded headphones in hard-case with both the logos of DL and The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which DL was supporting for the entire month of October. There was also a Boeing 777 trading card with some specifications of the 777-200LR on the reverse. After the snack pack was delivered, another cart came through the aisle delivering small cups of rock-hard Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream, a fitting way for the group to properly celebrate.
Once the carts were out of the aisle, the party really began. It seemed that almost everyone on the aircraft knew at least 10 others and people had the ability to chat with anyone else on the aircraft, all while wearing masks. There was even a bingo game with squares representing different possible vents during the flight. The flight attendants made regular announcements reminding passengers to keep their masks on and when possible, keep the aisles clear and to remain socially distant.
Each flight attendant was told the night before about the circumstances and the historical significance of the flight. Upon hearing this, a few dropped the flight. Luckily, there were many Crew members who were more than happy to fill in.
As with seemingly all retirement and inaugural flights, there were a few people who had no idea what was going on and were caught up in the action. However, due to the pandemic and the fact that the flight was only available to be booked approximately three weeks before departure, there were only 10-15 such people.
About an hour before landing, the Captain came on the PA system to talk about the history of the Boeing 777 fleet at DL. In total, the fleet had logged around 1.26 million flight hours in 133,694 total flights. He also reminded the passengers not to take any part of the aircraft home with them (which has been the case for some other aircraft retirements.
Before the descent began, the Flight Attendants came through again with snack packs and ice cream as passengers experienced a great view of the Grand Canyon.
While over the Mojave Desert, the descent began. DL8777 landed on Runway 24R at LAX at 3:34 PM, 26 minutes ahead of schedule, and 5 hours and 22 minutes after departing from Kennedy. Upon landing, a water cannon salute was requested, but was once again denied, this time by LAX’s Fire Department. The aircraft, still dry, taxied very slowly to Gate 23A in Terminal 2.
Upon parking at the gate, seemingly no one wanted to leave. Flight Attendants offered passengers to view their crew rest bunk. Additionally, a line to see the cockpit and meet the Pilots was formed and it extended all the way to the Main Cabin. Once people finished with the cockpit, they were escorted to the jetway.
Airways ended being the final passenger to leave the aircraft, thus personally being a part of history. Once into the terminal, passengers were met with an orange carpet (Halloween-themed red carpet) and balloons. The aircraft was now being prepared to leave LAX to go to its resting place, Victorville.
At 6:38 PM, N701DN pushed back from Gate 23A as DL9977. It taxied to Runway 24L and departed at sunset for a 24-minute flight to VCV. After landing and locking up the aircraft, the pilots were shuttled back to a hotel near LAX for a dead-head flight home.
Captain Tim will soon start training to be an A350 captain. First Officer Scott will very soon become Captain Scott, as he will be training to fly the A319, A320, and A321 from the left seat.
This could mark the end for these aircraft. The current market for aircraft is at its all-time low. Many Boeing 777-200ERs were removed from fleets, even prior to the pandemic. There’s an extremely slim chance these will ever return to the air. Previous Boeing 777-200LRs that have been retired have been scrapped as well. It makes sense that given the current aviation climate, Delta’s would receive the same fate.
However, on-board the final flight, there was a rumor that the 10 Boeing 777-200LRs would be converted into a cargo configuration and flown once again. There is no official confirmation to back that statement up, but with the increased cargo demand, the already existing support network for such aircraft, and the reliability of a Delta TechOps maintained aircraft, it is possible that something like this could happen.
The only Boeing widebodies in Delta’s fleet are the Boeing 767-300ER and 767-400ER. It is likely that both of those will be gone by the end of the decade as well. With no plans to purchase the Boeing 787, it is very possible that DL becomes an all-Airbus airline at the widebody level, a stark comparison to just 15 years ago.
Delta’s 18 Boeing 777s had a great lifetime of service to Delta Air Lines. Although their time was cut short, the memories from each of their 133, 694 flights will make a lasting impression on the airline forever.
Featured image: Kendrick Dlima