Delta retires Boeing 777, workhorse for international flying

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' last remaining Boeing 777 will take its final flight Saturday, an early retirement prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atlanta-based Delta’s 777 fleet is the highest-profile aircraft type to get the ax as Delta grounds planes and becomes a smaller airline to adjust to the drop in travel due to the coronavirus. Delta is retiring 383 of its airplanes by the end of 2025, including 200 this year.

The 777 has been in Delta’s fleet since 1999. In addition to the 777-200ER, the 288-seat 777-200LR is the world’s longest-range commercial airplane and was used for flights to exotic locales like Johannesburg and Tokyo.

But now, many in the airline industry expect international travel to take years to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic.

“We anticipate domestic travel is going to return sooner than the international travel,” said Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer. “Timing on a lot of the international market opening is very much up in the air right now,” and will depend on factors such as virus trends, vaccines and quarantine requirements.

“What we don’t want to do is fly to these markets and drop our customers off into a 14-day quarantine,” Lentsch said.

A Delta 777 touched down in Atlanta for the last time Friday to pick up passengers, bound for Los Angeles International Airport.

The 777′s final Delta mission worldwide, Flight 8777, will take off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles on Saturday.

The 777s are bound for an aircraft storage boneyard in Victorville, Calif., at the edge of the Mojave Desert.

Delta will replace them with more fuel-efficient wide-body Airbus A350s.

However, the Johannesburg-Atlanta route in the future will have to be flown with a fuel stop in Cape Town on its return trips to the United States, adding a new city to Delta’s route map.

The airline had just spent millions upgrading its 18 777s with business class suites and a new premium economy cabin.

“Obviously, we did that at a time where we weren’t anticipating the acceleration of its retirement,” Lentsch said.

The 777 played a unique role for Delta during the pandemic, when the airline converted one into a cargo freighter by removing the seats. It carried medical equipment, personal protective gear, pharmaceuticals, home office supplies, U.S. mail and food, according to Delta. That aircraft is being retired along with the rest of the 777 fleet.

In addition to the 777, Delta has retired its fleets of MD-88 and MD-90 jets, and plans to retire its Boeing 717s, CRJ-200 regional jets and the rest of its Boeing 767-300ER jets.

That’s "really going to set us up well as we emerge from this pandemic,” Lentsch said.

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