Delta retiring giant Boeing 777s from fleet amid travel plunge

Boeing 777 at Concourse F, International Terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Boeing 777 at Concourse F, International Terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Delta Air Lines is retiring its fleet of Boeing 777s, signaling the depth of the impact on air travel from the coronavirus pandemic.

The wide-body Boeing 777s are among Delta's largest planes and the airline has used them to fly international routes such as Atlanta to Johannesburg, Tokyo and Seoul.

But now, many in the airline industry don’t expect international travel to fully recover for four years. Delta already has parked more than 650 jets, or roughly half of its fleet, as travel demand has declined more than 90%. In addition to canceling flights, many flights are mostly empty.

Atlanta-based Delta said it will permanently retire its 18 Boeing 777s by the end of the year. Instead, it will use more fuel-efficient Airbus A350-900s and A330s to fly long-haul routes when international demand returns.

“Retiring a fleet as iconic as the 777 is not an easy decision,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a memo to employees. “The 777 played an important role with Delta since 1999, allowing us to open new long-haul markets and grow our international network as we transformed into a global airline.”

But he said the company is burning through $50 million in cash a day — including paying out $1.2 billion in refunds to customers after canceling flights — and its goal is to stop burning through cash by the end of this year. A move such as parking the 777s helps to “stem the bleeding, in an effort to safeguard Delta jobs and our future,” Bastian wrote.

In the past several weeks, Delta has repurposed 777s to transport cargo for COVID-19 response, deliver mail to U.S. troops abroad and fly U.S. citizens back home from other countries. It’s still unclear what will happen to the planes after Delta removes them from its fleet. The airline said it will share more details later.

The move will also affect pilots, flight attendants and mechanics who work on 777s.

More broadly, Delta on Thursday told its roughly 14,000 pilots it will be overstaffed by more than 7,000 pilots this fall, and by 2,500-3,500 pilots in the third quarter of 2021. It said it is “looking at all options to minimize potential furloughs,” such as an early retirement program.

Bastian said more than 41,000 of the company’s 90,000 employees have agreed to take voluntary leaves of absence in response to the plunge in air travel.

Delta is also retiring smaller, aging MD-88 and MD-90 jets in June, earlier than previously planned.

The company said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that its fleet retirements will result in a non-cash charge of $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion in its financial results this quarter.

“We plan to continue to consider further opportunities for early aircraft retirements in an effort to modernize and simplify our fleet in the future,” Delta said in the filing.

Delta’s Boeing 777s through the years

1997: Delta announces plans to buy hundreds of jets from Boeing, including 10 of the giant 777 for international flights.

1998: The first 777 lands at Hartsfield International Airport, flown by British Airways from London.

1999: Delta's first 777 is delivered from Boeing Field in Seattle to Atlanta, where it is greeted with a water cannon salute. "This is obviously the new queen of our fleet," said then-CEO Leo Mullin. The jet's first route is Atlanta-London, with plans for other routes from the U.S. to Frankfurt and Paris.

2004: Amid financial struggles, Delta delays deliveries of five 777s and some other jets.

2008: After emerging from bankruptcy the previous year, Delta looks to expand its overseas network and resumes deliveries of new jets for the first time in six years with a dedication ceremony for a brand new Boeing 777-200LR nicknamed "Delta Spirit."

Delta Air Lines President Edward Bastian dedicates "The Delta Spirit" to employees in early March 2008. Delta is adding eight Boeing 777-200LR planes to its fleet with a promise the new planes will make flying more comfortable, especially for those in the Business Elite class.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

2017: Delta takes delivery of its first Airbus A350-900, a more fuel-efficient wide-body jet that, like the 777 and 747, can fly long-haul international routes. Delta calls the A350 its new flagship aircraft. Delta retires the 747 jumbo jet from its fleet later that year.

2018: A newly renovated Delta 777 takes off with new business class suites that have a sliding door for privacy, intended to help compete against foreign carriers with posh cabins for well-heeled travelers around the world.

Delta's renovated Boeing 777s includes suites in Delta One business class. Credit: Chris Rank/Rank Studios. Source: Delta

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2020: Amid a steep decline in travel during the coronavirus pandemic — particularly international travel — Delta announces it will permanently retire the 777 from its fleet.

Source: AJC archives


In 2008, the signatures of Delta employees and others on a banner at the delivery ceremony for a new Boeing 777-200LR:

The signatures of Delta employees and other well-wishers are shown on a banner at the delivery ceremony for the new Boeing 777-200LR.

Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP

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Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP

Delta’s first 777 flies into Atlanta in 1999:

In March 1999, Delta's first new Boeing 777 jumbo jet arrives at Hartsfield Airport from Seattle, marking a milestone in aviation development.

Credit: T. Levette Bagwell / AJC

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Credit: T. Levette Bagwell / AJC