Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
- The Boeing 777 – a Brief History
- The Technical Details
- The Passenger Perspective
- The Crew Perspective
- Final Thoughts
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The Boeing 777 is one of the safest and most successful aircraft in aviation history. If you’ve been on a long-haul flight in the last 20 years, there’s a high probability that you’ve been on one. First entering service in 1995 with United Airlines, it is now a member of over 50 different airline’s fleets.
Normally referred to as the “triple seven,” it has become a firm favorite with airlines and pilots alike. The airlines love the way its performance affects their balance sheets and pilots love it for its simplicity and versatility.
Here is the definitive guide on all you need to know about “The Triple.”
The Boeing 777 – a Brief History
Creating the Concept
The 777 project was conceived as long ago as 1988. At the time, Boeing was under considerable commercial pressure. The economy was suffering and for the first time in its history, the company was facing very real competition. Airlines were starting to have a real choice of aircraft to fulfill their needs, with Airbus in Europe becoming a major player in the airliner industry.
Airlines wanted a smaller aircraft that had the range of the popular Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” and could carry fewer passengers. This would enable them to profitably operate routes that didn’t have the demand for a larger aircraft. To fulfill this requirement, Boeing’s original plan was to expand on its last aircraft, the 767.
Carrying around 200 passengers, the 767 wasn’t quite big enough for what airlines wanted so Boeing would have to increase both its passenger capacity and flying range. Initial designs had stretched versions of the aircraft and also, taking inspiration from the 747, a version that had an upper deck at the rear of the aircraft.
While Boeing hoped that these new designs would satisfy their customers, the airlines weren’t impressed. Airbus was putting forward their designs for the A330 and A340 and McDonald Douglas had their new and improved MD-11. To remain competitive, Boeing needed a new plan, and fast.
A Revolutionary Design
What was needed to impress the airlines and win their business was a whole new concept — a new way of thinking, a new way of designing and manufacturing airliners. The 777 was the first commercial airliner to be designed entirely by computer. A new software program created by Boeing enabled engineers to model aircraft parts and spot any interference between various components. By eliminating these problems at the design stage, engineers were able to streamline the manufacturing process.
On the aircraft, Boeing brought in sweeping changes, too. In the flight deck, gone were the analog dials of the 767 and in were high-resolution computer screens. The 777 also became Boeing’s first Fly By Wire aircraft, meaning that the controls’ surfaces on the wings and tail were operated by electrical signals sent “by wire” from the controls in the flight deck.
The cabin was engineered to be roomier than other aircraft. Sloping cabin walls and specially designed overhead luggage bins created a greater feeling of space for passengers. The cabin was also a massive 1.15 meters wider than the 767. This meant that airlines had a greater scope in how they could develop their interiors to improve the customer experience.
In Search of a Launch Partner
Before committing the vast sums of money needed for such a project, Boeing needed a launch customer who would commit to buying a substantial number of aircraft. In 1990, they turned to their long-time customer, United Airlines.
At the time, United was looking at 33 combinations of aircraft and engines to revamp their wide-body fleet. The proposed 777 was just one of these options, so Boeing knew they weren’t in for an easy ride. As expected, the negotiations weren’t easy, but, as the story goes, United’s Executive Vice President James Guyette had an epiphany at 2:15 a.m. one night.
Waking up, he realized that if the project was to work, there needed to be more than just a new concept of how to design and build aircraft. What was needed was a holistic approach to manufacturing between Boeing and United.
In a handwritten note, he declared that the 2 companies must work together to deliver a service-ready aircraft: an aircraft that works, which provides functionality that all who come into contact with it like. Passengers, pilots, flight attendants, engineers, and ground handlers must all have their interests considered and catered for.
Guyette presented the note to Boeing at the meeting the next day, which he insisted they sign, promising to adhere to the values which he deemed were necessary to make the project a success.
With this promise in place, United agreed to a $3.5 billion deal to purchase 34 aircraft for delivery in 1995, with the option of a further 34 aircraft 3 years later. With this deal in place, the 777 project was born.
First Flight and the Testing Process
From agreeing to the deal with United to the first aircraft getting airborne took just 4 years. On June 12, 1994, the first 777-200 took off for its maiden test flight in front of an audience of thousands.
The aircraft then embarked on a punishing testing process to make sure that it performed as it was designed to. Rejected takeoffs at maximum weight, landings in howling crosswinds, and engine operations in the extreme cold all showed that the aircraft performed even better than was expected.
The 777-200 was certified for commercial operations on April 19, 1995, bang on schedule. It then received its ETOPS certification the following month, making it the first twin-engined aircraft to have this approval on entry to service.
United’s inaugural flight of the 777 took place on June 7, 1995 between London (LHR) and Washington, D.C (IAD) and the success story began.
The Technical Details
Recognizing a 777
At first glance, the 777 may seem very similar to other types of aircraft, with a single cabin deck and 2 engines. But when you start to look a little closer, there are some pretty clear ways to identify that it’s a 777.
Firstly, look at the fuselage width. The 777 is what’s known as a “wide-body” aircraft, meaning that it normally has 2 aisles in the cabin. At 16 feet wide, the fuselage gives airlines a great deal of flexibility to fit the cabin out how they wish. More on this later.
Length, too, is a defining factor. If you look at most narrow-body aircraft with 2 engines (like the A320 or B737), they are both relatively short. The 777 is 184 feet from nose to tail, almost double its smaller counterparts. Count the doors down the side. If you can see 4 proper doors (not emergency exit hatches), chances are it could be a 777.
Hot Tip: The 777-300 actually has 5 sets of doors, but more on this variant later!
The engines, too, are a good indicator. The 777 has some of the biggest engines in commercial aviation. If they look like you could drive a car into them, chances are it’s a triple.
However, it can be a little difficult to judge size, especially when you have nothing to compare it with. So what other signs are there?
One of the easiest indicators of the 777 to spot is the wheels. Due to the weight of the 777, it needs some serious landing gear to bear the massive forces experienced on landing. To do that, the 777 has 2 sets of main landing gear. There are 6 wheels on each set, so from the side, you’ll be able to see 3 wheels on each main set of landing gear.
The only other commercial aircraft which has this landing gear set-up is the A350-1000.
So what if you have 2 aircraft, both wide-body, both with 4 doors down the side and both with 6 wheels on each main landing gear? B777 or A350?
The next step is to look at the wingtips. Being an older design, the 777 has a more traditional pointed wingtip. If the aircraft has a fancy, upward-curving wingtip, you’re looking at an A350.
As the success of the aircraft grew, airlines wanted more from the 777 program — more range and bigger capacity for both passengers and cargo. To satisfy these needs, in the same year as United flew their first 777 flight, Boeing was already planning the next step.
The 777-200ER (Extended Range) came into service soon after, giving a range of 8,177 miles — an impressive 2,115 miles more than the original -200. While the passenger number remained the same, it enabled airlines to link cities such as New York to Cape Town and Los Angeles to Sydney.
The 777-200ER also holds several distance records:
- In July 1997, Malaysia Airlines flew 12,455 miles from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, though this was a delivery flight and did not have a full complement of passengers and bags.
- In March 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew 10,661 miles on a British Airways 777-200ER non-stop between Brussels and Melbourne. Not only was the flight carrying the Prime Minister, but it also carried his entourage of staff, journalists and 20 crew members to facilitate the 18hr 45min flight.
While the 777-200ER solved customers’ range requirements, airlines still wanted something in which they could carry more passengers and cargo. In June 1995, Boeing announced the development of the 777-300, a stretched version of the original 777-200 series aircraft.
At 244 feet, it was 33 feet longer than the -200 and 11 feet longer than the 747-400. This extra space enabled airlines to add a further 60 seats in a 3 class configuration.
The extra length also required a change to the passenger doors. To comply with emergency evacuation requirements with the increased passenger number, the -300 needed an extra pair of doors. This makes it even easier to recognize, being the only twin-engine aircraft to have 5 pairs of doors.
With increased size and passengers naturally comes increased weight. The -300 has a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of just under 300 tons — 52 tons heavier than the original -200.
Airlines loved the increased capacity of the -300 but it didn’t quite have the range of the -200ER. What if Boeing could design a model that gave them the best of both types? Enter the 777-300ER.
Entering service in February 2003 with a range of 8,531 miles, the -300ER had a greater range than the -200ER, with the passenger and cargo capacity of the original -300. The wingtips were redesigned to give the wings greater efficiency and the landing gear was modified to take the strain of the increased MTOW. Since its launch, the -300ER has been the major driving force in sales of the 777 program.
As of July 2018, there were 784 777-300ER aircraft in service with airlines around the world. Emirates operates the largest 777 fleet, with 137 of its 158 being the -300ER variant.
Even with the introduction of the 787 Dreamliner in 2009, the 777 program continued to go from strength to strength. In 2011, Boeing started plans for improved versions of the 777-200ER and the 777-300ER. The 777X will enter service with 2 variants — the 777-8 and the 777-9.
The -8 will be slightly longer than the -200ER and be able to carry 353 passengers 9,480 miles. The -9 will come in at 251 feet, even longer than the 777-300ER, and be able to carry 407 passengers 8,437 miles.
Due to new engines and a greater wingspan, the 777X generation of 777s will have a 20% better fuel burn than previous types, making it better for the environment and better for airlines’ budget sheets. This greater wingspan also provides the 777X with a unique feature — folding wingtips.
Airports are carefully designed to allow aircraft to taxi and park without hitting other objects. At 235 feet, the wingspan of the 777X would be too great for current airport layouts. To get around this problem, the wingtips fold up on the ground, reducing the wingspan to 212 feet, allowing the aircraft to fit within current airport dimensions.
The first 777X is due for delivery with launch customer Emirates in 2020.
The Passenger Perspective
Which Airlines Operate the 777?
As of July 2018, there were a total of 1,416 aircraft across the 777 range in operation with various airlines. As mentioned previously, Emirates has by far the biggest fleet with 158 in service. The original launch customer, United Airlines, comes in second with 91 and Air France, Cathay Pacific, and American are close behind with 70, 69, and 67 respectively.
Even though a handful of airlines operate the majority of aircraft, over 70 different airlines around the world have at least 1 777 in their fleet. If you’re flying with Singapore Airlines, British Airways, El Al, or Air India out of the U.S., the chances are it’ll be on a 777.
What’s Is the 777 Experience Like for Passengers?
Aircraft manufacturers love putting out fancy press releases when they design a new aircraft, showing the facilities that could be on board. However, the keyword there is could. Airlines buy the aircraft from the manufacturer as a shell and it’s up to the airline as to how they configure the interior.
High-Density Domestic or Super-Luxury Long-Haul?
Some airlines want to use the aircraft for intensive short-range operations as Japan Airlines does between Tokyo (HND/NRT) and Sapporo (CTS). These 777-300s seat 500 passengers in a 78/422 business/economy configuration.
Other operators, like Crystal Skye, go to the other extreme and use them as private jets, with just 88 seats and some pretty impressive extras. Each seat converts to a fully flat bed and there is a social lounge and stand up bar for when you’re bored of your bed.
Some 777s are even owned privately by individuals. For these customers, the sky really is the limit to what they can have in the cabin, with king-sized beds, movie theaters, and walk-in wardrobes as the norm.
The Cabin Experience
Stepping onto a 777, you’re immediately aware that you’re on a large aircraft. At most airports, you’ll board through the second door on the lefthand side. It’s from this that the term “always turn left” comes from as it invariably means turning into first or business class. The wide doorway gives access to 2 aisles that make their way from the front to the back of the aircraft.
Even though individual airlines design cabins how they wish, in economy, most airlines are very similar. Overhead lockers close upwards towards the ceiling, giving passengers greater headroom and a feeling of greater space. The width of the cabin means that the sidewalls don’t encroach on your shoulder space, giving you more room to relax.
However, if there’s 1 thing over time which airlines seem to have cottoned on to, if there’s more space, there’s more room for seats. Remember the old photos of the 747 with a lounge and piano in the upstairs “hump?” That didn’t last too long before airlines realized that they could make more money by fitting that area with seats instead. It’s the same with the 777.
Traditionally, the 777 has had a 9 abreast configuration in economy. However, with advances in seat technology, airlines are now able to squeeze in an extra seat making it 10 across — this seems to be the standard fit for American, Emirates, and United.
When you move forward to business and first, your experience can vary widely depending on which airline you’re flying with. We’ll look at some of the best options a little later.
If there’s 1 thing that passengers and crew together dislike about the 777, it’s the air quality. Whereas the new technology on the 787 makes for a much more natural environment, the air on the 777 is notorious for being incredibly dry. Even compared to the 747, the air quality seems to be much worse. So what can you do about this?
The obvious answer is to keep well hydrated. Drink plenty of water during the flight and try to minimize the amount of alcohol you consume. Also, keep your skin hydrated by regularly applying moisturizer. If you’re planning to sleep, another tip learned from 777 flight attendants is to ask the crew for a hot towel. Soak it with cold water and wring it out. Then place the damp towel over your face as you sleep. This will make sure that you’re breathing more moist air, stopping your nose from drying out.
Hot Tip: Use a moist towel on your face as you sleep to stop your nose and face from drying out.
Does turbulence vary between aircraft types? While the aircraft type can not change the atmospheric conditions causing the turbulence, how you experience the turbulence can be affected by the aircraft.
Firstly, due to its size, the 777 tends to ride the bumps better. Think of waves on the ocean — this, in effect, is what turbulence is. A large cruise ship will ride the same waves far better than a small dinghy. You’re better off being on a larger jet aircraft than a smaller propeller aircraft, as these get bumped around more than their heavier counterparts.
Secondly, the 777 can cruise higher than other types of aircraft. Most of the turbulence over the Atlantic tend to be in the low 30,000 feet altitudes. While a fully loaded 767 will invariably be flying in the worst of the bumps at 33,000 feet, a full 777 could be up as high as 39,000 feet where the air tends to be much smoother.
Which Are the Best Seats?
No matter which cabin you sit in, there are some great seats to be found across the airlines which operate the 777.
Singapore Airlines boasts one of the best first class experiences available with its exclusive 4-seat cabin in a 1-2-1 configuration. Soft pink lighting and hand-stitched chocolate leather greet you as you enter the cabin. The seat itself is one of the widest in the sky and there’s plenty of storage to keep your inflight essentials.
When it’s time to sleep, the seat flips over into a massive 6-foot-8-inch bed, big enough for all except NBA players. For more, check out our review of the Singapore Airlines first class seat on the 777
In business class, it doesn’t get much better than Qatar Airways’ Qsuites. Configured in a 1-2-1 layout, the Qsuites may look like just another fancy business class cabin.
There’s a big leather seat, a huge TV screen, and world-class food and drink. However, it’s when the sun sets that they really come into their own.
If you’re traveling with your partner, the divider between the 2 middle seats can be lowered and the seats converted into a double bed. At nearly 4 feet wide and with luxurious White Company bedding, you’ll feel like you’re in your own bed at home.
However, if you’re there to work, the unique design of the center seats means that the can be turned to create a 4-person meeting and dining space. A truly innovative creation.
For more, check out our review of Qatar Airways Boeing 777 “Qsuites” Business Class.
In economy, Japan Airlines topped the recent Skytrax awards for World’s Best Economy class. With a seat pitch of 33 inches and unobstructed space under the seat in front, even the longest of legs have space to stretch out during those long flights. Individual power sockets on the 777-200ER and a 10.6-inch touchscreen TV ensure that you’re well catered for, whether you want to work or relax.
The Crew Perspective
While the 777 is a place for passengers to enjoy their vacation or do some work on a business trip, it’s a place of work for the pilots and flight attendants. Not only is it their office, but on longer flights, it’s their bedroom, as well — a 300-ton home office in the sky. You probably have your own gripes about your working space, and probably fewer about your sleeping space, so imagine if the 2 were the same!
For those in charge of looking after your safety while onboard, it’s fair to say that most of them love the 777. “It’s a great airplane and very capable,” Michael, a Europe-based 777 pilot, stated. “From the smaller -200 to the larger -300, it’s very nice to handle, being one of Boeing’s first fly-by-wire types.”
Even though it’s such a complex machine, its simplicity is the 1 aspect that shines through. “They have made it feel very much like a conventional airplane,” he continued. “It’s nice and straightforward to operate. I particularly like the electronic checklist.”
The electronic checklist does away with the traditional paper checklist which pilots would read off. Instead, pilots use a cursor, like a laptop trackpad, to click through the checklists. This ensures that nothing is missed and alerts pilots if an incorrect switch or lever selection has been made.
Middle East-based captain Russell, also agrees. “My previous aircraft was the 737-800 which didn’t have EICAS. If we had a failure of any kind, we had to assess the situation by looking at the instrument panel and deciding what had failed and then looking in the Quick Reference Handbook for the appropriate checklist.”
However, one downside does seem to be the air quality and noise. “It’s a very dry airplane and if there’s 1 thing I could change, it would be a quieter flight deck!”
Yet, it’s the versatility of the 777 which he loves the most. “It has a great route network. It can do day-trips to Paris up to long-trips to Australia and everything in between.”
Russell also loves the reliability of the aircraft. “In over 7 years flying the 777, I’ve never had a major mechanical problem in the air, which obviously makes the job a lot easier from my side.” That said, he’s not a fan of the cockpit seats.
“They may look comfortable in photos, with the sheepskin fabric, however, they can be very uncomfortable for long periods of time. Personally, I bring an additional cushion to sit on which is made of memory foam. It reduces the lower back pain which I used to get when sitting in the seat without it.”
It seems that there are better quality seats available if the airline is willing to cough up the cash. “Airlines are given options on which flight deck seat they want to have, where the basic seat is cheaper, and more comfortable seats with additional support, better cushions, or fabrics are generally more expensive.”
The 777 also seems to be loved by pilots for its rest facilities, or the Crew Rest Compartment (CRC), during longer flights.
“In this CRC, we have bunks for the crew and pilots to rest during the flight,” Russell continued. “The bunks are quite small and cramped, especially for taller people, but there is something lovely about being tucked up in bed while you’re flying from one side of the world to another.”
The Flight Attendants
As you might imagine, the flight attendant working experience varies from airline to airline. Some have an easier seat configuration to work in, others have better rest facilities. To get an idea of what it’s like to work as a flight attendant on the 777, we spoke to Laura and Alex, crew for different airlines who operate the 777.
“It’s so much easier for me on the 777 as business class crew,” said Laura. “I have my own side to work at my own pace. I know how I work best and sometimes having a buddy is more a headache than help.”
However, Alex who also operates on the 747, wasn’t as full of praise. “Compared to the 747, the galley and workspaces are very small and cramped, making it challenging at times.”
The upward closing design of the overlockers, too, provides problems. “On the 777, closing heavy lockers can result in damage to your hands and back,” Alex continued. “On the 747, the lockers close downwards meaning that you’re not taking the weight of the luggage when closing them.”
One area in which both Laura and Alex agreed was the crew rest facilities. On longer flights, like the pilots, flight attendants get some time away from the passengers to recharge their batteries. “My favorite thing about the 777-300ER is the crew rest area,” said Alex. “Comfy, quiet, and doesn’t feel claustrophobic.” Laura added, “It’s way more spacious and a lot more comfortable than the A380 bunks.”
However, if there were 1 thing flight attendants could change about working on the 777, what would it be?
“The seat layouts!” joked Laura. “Fewer seats to lessen the workload, but that’s wishful thinking in the finest!”
For Alex, it would be the cabin air. “The 777 is known for being very dry and can often leave you with a sore throat at the end of a flight. I’ve known lots of crew to suffer nose bleeds because it’s so dry. Flying on this aircraft too often, you certainly notice the difference in air quality.”
The 777 is the backbone for many airlines’ long-haul fleets and has become one of the most popular aircraft of all time. Developed in the 1990s, it’s still going strong nearly 30 years later.
In that time, the design has been tweaked and the aircraft evolved through several variants. The latest incarnation, the 777X, is almost ready to take to the skies (barring a few last-minute setbacks).
Its incredible versatility enables airlines to operate it on short hops of just a few minutes, to ultra-long-range flights over 15 hours. Either packing in 500 passengers for high-density routes or just 88 seats for luxury charters, the 777 has got the lot.
The width of the cabin has given airlines creative freedom to come up with some of the best and most novel seats ideas ever created. Even 10 years ago you’d never imagine being able to climb into a double bed with pillows and a duvet at 36,000 feet.
The main downside, it seems, is the dryness of the air. Compared to newer aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner, passengers and crew find the cabin environment on the 777 to be somewhat lacking. Plenty of water and a good skincare routine seem to be essential for any flight on a triple.
That said, those who call the 777 their office seem to love it. Pilots love the simplicity of the aircraft systems while it still maintains a “small aircraft” feel in terms of flying. Flight attendants find the rest facilities superior to other aircraft types which they work, enabling them to rest well and continue their service with a smile.
If you’re flying on a 777 anytime soon, you’ve chosen well. It’s an incredibly reliable aircraft that is loved by both the airlines, crew, and passengers alike. Enjoy your flight!
Featured Image Credit: Daniel Ross
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the 777 safe?
The 777 is one of the safest aircraft in the skies. It has some of the most up-to-date systems on board, ensuring that the pilots have the best tools available to them to get you safely to your destination.
What are the best seats on the 777?
This depends entirely on the airline you fly with. All operators have complete freedom to kit their cabins out however they wish. Singapore Airlines has one of the best first class cabins on the 777, whereas Qatar Airways’ Qsuites in business class are hard to beat. In economy, Japan Airlines has won plaudits for its economy offering.
How many pilots are needed to fly the 777?
A minimum of 2 pilots are required to fly the 777. However, on longer flights, 3 and sometimes 4 pilots are on board to enable each other to have a decent rest and sleep. This ensures that they can perform at their best during landing.
What are the downsides to the 777?
The only real negative people speak about the 777 is the air quality. It tends to be extremely dry so it’s important to stay well hydrated during the flight. Keeping a moist towel over your face as you sleep is a good way to stop your skin from drying out.
Do the crew get to sleep on the ultra-long-range flights?
Yes. Hidden away in a secret part of the aircraft are rest facilities for both pilots and flight attendants. This enables them to get some rest during the quieter parts of the flight, ensuring that they are as alert as possible during the safety-critical approach and landing.
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About Charlie Page
Charlie is a Senior First Officer and has been an airline pilot for nearly 15 years. He currently flies long-haul on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner after 10 years buzzing around Europe on the A320. He got into travel and aviation from an early age, fortunate enough to be taken on some great family holidays.
His earliest memory of visiting a flight deck was aged 8 and it was from then on that he was determined to become an airline pilot.
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