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From factory to first flight, follow the path of a B777 order bound to be the 200th Boeing in the Air France fleet. Not quite like buying a car

B-777 Mathieu Marque via Flickr


SEATTLE – Miraculously, the heavy rain gave way to sunshine, a rare site in Seattle. On the runway of the Boeing delivery center in Everett, the long white body of Air France's still wet B777-300 ER seemed to be sparkling.

Waiting nearby, the French airline's team, ready to take delivery of the company's 200th Boeing, stopped to take pictures with the new plane, before returning to work on the final touches. There's no time to waste: the delivery ceremony had just ended and take-off for Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport was just a half hour away. At 270 million dollars (catalogue price), a B777-30 ER is too precious of a plane to stay long without putting to use. The aircraft has a date with its first passengers on December 20 for its first commercial flight to Montreal, then on to Ho Chi Minh City in January.

Draw me a plane

To get to this point, Boeing and Air France worked intensively for two years. That's how long it takes to determine the layout of this massive aircraft, which can carry 383 passengers and 23 tons of freight more than 14,000 kilometers. A long, painstaking work is also a race against time, all the way until the plane is ready for service. "The countdown started in 2008," says Nicolas Bertrand, who is in charge of Air France's long-haul fleet. "The first stage is to determine in detail what the plane will look like, from the seats to the positioning of the tags or the screws for cribs."

This first step, marked by continuous meetings with Boeing staff and aeronautical equipment suppliers, took about 10 months. "It's teamwork and it involves several different company entities like maintenance, marketing, aviation operations," says Bertrand. "It's not only about mechanical equipment choices; the number of seats and layout choices will depend on markets and routes on which the planes will fly." In this case, this step was all the more complex because this B777 is the first to receive a new tri-class layout, without a first class but with a business class and a premium economy.

Once they're selected, parts purchases must be negotiated by Air France's acquisitions services. That's another three months, with more meetings with Boeing and the airline's other services, to oversee the progress of certification of new products, before getting to the ITCM (Initial Technical Coordination Meeting), the final recap meeting with Boeing and chosen service contractors, during which the plane's specificities are finalized. At the end of this meeting, the airline agrees to deliver the necessary equipment to the constructor in time, in this case October at the latest, for the cabin installation.

Disneyland-sized factory

Only then can the assembling of the plane begin. It starts at the end of July under the supervision of Air France's permanent representative in Seattle, Thomas Sonigo. Every step of the way, Air France Industries' engineers travel from Paris to inspect and oversee operations. "We use that time to inspect certain parts of the plane which will later be inaccessible, making sure that the metal sheets are correctly secured, that there are no overseen FODs (foreign object debris)," explains one of the engineers. It will take more than three months to assemble the B777-300 ER in the giant Everett, Washington factory, large enough to fit all of Disneyland, until the late October roll out.

After a few days of ground tests comes the first flight, known as B1 (Boeing 1), by Boeing test pilots. At this stage, the aircraft is still under the manufacturer's responsibility, but Air France teams are on the ground and aboard to check every last detail, on the lookout for any odd noises or behavior from the craft. In early November, the B777 took a weeklong trip to Portland to be painted: about two tons of white paint would be needed. Here again the result is checked by an Air France specialist, looking out for any unevenness that would require repainting.

Devil's in the details

A week prior to the scheduled delivery date, the complex process of the plane's "technical acceptance" begins. A team of ten people flies from Paris to check everything that can be checked on the aircraft. Called the customer walk-through, it lasts three days. The first two allow inspectors to test all of the cabin's functionalities, from the video screens to the toilet flush. A small team of flight attendants and pilots participate. The plane is inspected inside and out. Everything must be tested. The third day is dedicated to the first three-hour test flight, called C1 (Customer 1), with an Air France pilot in charge for the first time. This allows him to push the plane, especially to test a number of emergency procedures.

Nothing should be left aside. "Our inspectors have red duct tape to mark any flaws," explains Bertrand. "We always find something: a piece of carpet that is not well glued, seat cushions badly installed, traces of contact…" This plane is no exception. The armrests in economy stay up when the seat is pushed back. A minor issue that will be fixed once the plane is taken back to Paris.

All the flaws noticed on the ground or in flight are listed in a "letter of reservation," explaining how Boeing should resolve the problem. "Sometimes negotiations get tough," admits Bertrand. Only once all these imperfections are fixed can the aircraft be delivered.

Time for gifts

The procedure can now give way to rituals. On the eve of the plane's delivery, the traditional "delivery dinner" gathers both Air France and Boeing teams in a nice Seattle restaurant. There are speeches and cheers, some alcohol and at the end of the meal a few gifts are exchanged. Besides the traditional poster and the miniature of the plane, the Air France representative this time also gets a bronze aviator statue, which will end up in the airline's museum.

D-Day has finally arrived: the plane is being delivered. Boeing will sign the Bill of Sale and Air France, the Aircraft Receipt. But before that, the final job for Air France representatives is to check all the technical documentation – flight manuals, technical manuals, maintenance CDs – delivered with the plane. That's the equivalent of several cardboard boxes that will leave with the plane. In the mean time, Air France and Boeing teams put the finishing touches to the plane.

Only after making sure that everything is in order does Thomas Sonigo pick up his phone to call Air France's bank in New York and transfer the funds into Boeing's account. The price tag is kept secret, some discounts negotiated two years before can sometimes be considerable. Part of the price is paid upon order as well as in the last months before the delivery. But what's left is the big chunk of payment. So it's not until Boeing gets confirmation of the payment from its own bank that it will give its client the Bill of Sale in exchange for the Aircraft receipt. Only then is Air France officially the owner of its 61st B777 and its 200th Boeing.

First flight, first landing

After landing in Paris, the executive teams will still have some work to do to complete formalities. Besides going through customs, because it is an import, it will take another few days to get the final certification for the aircraft from the General Direction of Civil Aviation and its final license plate F-GZNH: ‘F" for France, followed by a few letters which can sometimes have a meaning. It can be the initials of an airline representative who worked on the delivery. Before flying out for good, the new plane will spend another few days on the ground in PDM or Post Delivery Modification for the final changes. That's when Air France's flight crews in Charles de Gaulle will get to meet the new aircraft.

The story could end there but in the case of the F-GZNH, there's a quite unusual, though increasingly frequent, epilogue. In a few weeks it will actually be sold to Air Lease Corporation, a new American airplane sales and rentals company, created by Steve Udvar-Hazy, the former CEO of the industry's world leader ILFC. A way for the airline to win back its investment, while still operating the aircraft through a lease. "This sale and lease-back operation is an increasingly common way of financing the purchase of a plane while keeping our finances in check," explains Bruno Delile, Air France's fleet director. "This also allows us to adjust our capacity by increasing or decreasing our fleet through the renewal or not of leases depending on how the market looks. But this plane will stay in our fleet for a good decade."

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