British Airways

G-ZZZA, one of British Airways' oldest 777-200s.

Old Dog, New Tricks

Greetings from London! I’m back home for the next three weeks, spending the holidays with family and friends. I flew in this morning on BA0066, one of two daily flights that British Airways operates on the PHL-LHR sector (the other being BA0068). I prefer Flight 66 for time reasons – it leaves Philadelphia at 6:35pm EST and arrives in London at 6:40am GMT, narrowly missing the horrendous rush hour at Heathrow which frequently adds ~1hr of travel time. That being said, BA0068 has a terrific “Sleeper Service” if you’re lucky enough to be seated in Club World (BA’s business class product) or First Class. I tried this service a few years ago through a free upgrade, but decided that the price tag – anywhere between $7-10K oneway PHL-LHR – was not justified by the relatively short flight duration (6-8hrs).

Last night’s flight reaffirmed that point: even with an hour delay at PHL, we caught strong tailwinds over the Atlantic and made the trip in 6 hours and 10 minutes, landing just after the scheduled arrival time. Having barely slept the night before due to a class assignment – which incidentally had to do with international airline passenger volumes – I was prepared to board the plane and pass out in my seat in World Traveler (WT, BA’s economy class product). As it would happen, I received a complimentary upgrade to World Traveler Plus (WTP), a step-up from regular economy class featuring wider seats, greater pitch, more legroom, and business class service (along with USB ports, which are for some reason not available at all seats). In my mind, WTP is the best class to fly on a shorter transatlantic route like PHL-LHR, since it offers the 75% of the comfort in business class at maybe 50% of the cost. As an example of the increased service quality in WTP, here’s the menu we were offered on the flight, a three-course meal with a selection of wines more extensive than the standard “red or white?” option given in regular economy (which, I should add, is still one of the luxuries of flying BA as opposed to its American peers).

World Traveler Plus menu on BA66 (December 17, 2014)

WTP Menu on BA66

At first, it appeared that the delay was caused by the inbound flight not arriving on time. However, even after the aircraft arrived at the gate and passengers deboarded, the expected departure time kept on getting pushed back. I wasn’t too bothered (a combination of being too tired to care, and having linked up with a friend who was on the same flight). Eventually, an announcement came in over the PA system at the gate, informing us that there was a problem with three out of seven onboard lavatories that couldn’t be fixed until the plane got back to home base in London. As a result, passengers were advised to use the restrooms in the airport prior to boarding. It also just so happened that the broken lavatories were all on the left side of the aircraft, where I was seated. Terrific.

The whole incident had me thinking: what could have possibly gone so wrong that they couldn’t fix it in Philadelphia? Without getting into the specifics of sewage systems, I decided to take another angle at the problem: by looking up the tail number of the aircraft scheduled for the flight, G-ZZZA (shown in the main photo above). I found a unique history to this specific Boeing 777-200 aircraft. When it was delivered to BA on May 20, 1996, G-ZZZA was only the sixth 777-type aircraft to roll off the Boeing production line. An 18-year veteran of the BA fleet, the aircraft was originally painted in BA’s iconic “Landor” livery, featuring the airline’s heraldic crest. Indeed, I found several photos of G-ZZZA with this livery in the late 1990s – shown below – before BA made a well-known public relations blunder that involved changing its tail logos to a series of artworks representing what management felt was a more cosmopolitan, international image. The airline has since switched back to a more traditional image with the British flag on the tail, and although I like the current livery, my personal opinion is that they should bring back the retro Landor look.

G-ZZZA: Then

G-ZZZA: Then

G-ZZZA: Now

G-ZZZA: Now

Why would I care so much to look into the detailed history of a single aircraft? I think the history tells us a lot about this mammoth of a plane. It strikes me as incredible that the plane I flew in last night has gone through so many iterations of re-branding over the course of its life. G-ZZZA and its two sister planes, all 777-200s delivered to BA in the mid-1990s, are referred to by aviation enthusiasts as the “ZZZs.” Prior to being fitted with BA’s modern interiors and luxurious cabins in 2013, the three planes were often scorned by frequent travelers and referred to as “old crates.” Speaking about G-ZZZA specifically, one traveler said: “[I] was on it [in 2012] in Club World and it was the worst BA plane I’ve been on, with shabby seats, ventilation panels falling off, and terrible loop In-Flight Entertainment.” After seeing the inside of the plane last night, I could have never imagined it in such a state – in fact, if I hadn’t looked up the tail number, I might have been inclined to think that the aircraft was a 2000s-era model. Although it might not be the best comparison, I found photos of the first class cabin on G-ZZZA in the old and new styles:

G-ZZZA: Old First Class

G-ZZZA: Old First Class

G-ZZZA: New First Class

G-ZZZA: New First Class

I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is this: you can teach an old dog new tricks, but some things are inevitable with age. Last night’s lavatory problem may serve as a good example of the toll that 18 years of daily long-haul service takes on a flying machine like G-ZZZA. No matter how much grooming you give it over the years – hundreds of coats of paint, plush new interiors and upholstery – eventually, time is going to catch up to it, and the stress of old age will show up in ways that you can’t hide. One day, G-ZZZA will be deemed unfit to fly, and will be sent to one of the famous “boneyards” in the deserts of Arizona to live out its final days. Such was the case with G-ZZZE, a non-BA 777-200 that was disassembled in 2006. That’s just the nature of the business – in an industry driven by fuel efficiency and passenger capacity, the ZZZs will eventually be replaced by bigger, faster, and more cost-effective planes. It’s a trend that has already begun with the Boeing 747, an icon of the Golden Age of jet aviation, now slowly being phased out of airline fleets around the world. Rapid development in aviation, exemplified through new planes such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, continues to accelerate the aircraft life cycle.

When you look at the sheer pace of development, there’s a lot to look forward to for commercial aviation in the upcoming years. At the same time, it’s easy to forget aircraft that truly revolutionized the industry. The Boeing 747 changed the way the world looked at long-distance travel. G-ZZZA and its sister planes featured high-tech glass cockpits unlike those ever used by pilots, as shown below. Their impact to modern aviation is undoubtable: every new plane that appears in today’s market is a product of the technological expectations set by the Boeing 777. This is the reason why BA remains one of the largest operators of both the 747 and 777 – the sheer reliability and track record of the plane justifies a small trip to the mechanic [veterinarian] every now and then.

As a result, when I fly a plane like G-ZZZA, I don’t see a rusty and outdated dinosaur.

I see an old dog with new tricks, slowly feeling the burdens of time, but just as loyal and reliable as in its glory days.

G-ZZZA: Cockpit