In June 1995, United Airlines became the first airline to operate a Boeing 777. Since then, more than 1,200 777s have been delivered to airlines around the world and the popular widebody twinjet has clocked millions of flight hours. For 18 years, there were no fatal 777 accidents and only one hull loss resulting from a 777 flight—the British Airways 777-200ER that landed short of the runway at London Heathrow in January 2008, which caused substantial damage to the aircraft but no fatalities. There was also an EgyptAir 777-200ER that suffered irreparable damage from a cockpit fire on the ground before it was scheduled to take off from Cairo in July 2011. Everyone safely got off the aircraft.
This history underscores how stunning it is that, in the space of just 377 days, three 777s and 540 lives were lost in three of the most bizarre airline crashes ever. First, on July 6, 2013, there was the Asiana Airlines 777-200ER hitting a sea wall while attempting to land at San Francisco International, breaking apart and bursting into flames. Amazingly, 304 of the 307 passengers and crew aboard survived, including flight attendants ejected from the aircraft during the crash sequence.
Then, of course, there are this year’s twin Malaysia Airlines disasters. MH370, a 777-200ER, disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew aboard and still, more than four months later, not a trace has been found. Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney this week called MH17, the 777-200ER that was barbarously shot down with 298 people aboard over eastern Ukraine on July 17, a “particularly unsettling and painful moment in the history of aviation.”
What makes the three 777 hull losses in fatal accidents in just over a year hard to fathom is that there is no safety issue with the 777 itself. The US National Transportation Safety Board clearly concluded that there were no aircraft structural, engine or system failures that contributed to the Asiana Flight 214 crash. Since there is no evidence of anything regarding MH370, there is no reason to speculate there was an aircraft issue that caused the disaster. And no commercial aircraft, no matter how well built, stands a chance against a high-caliber, military-grade surface-to-air missile.
Covering commercial aviation for more than 15 years has taught me to expect the unexpected, and lately it seems every day brings a new surprise. But I don’t think anything prepared me for the shock of three lost 777s in a 377 day span. And the two Malaysia Airlines 777 disasters have really shaken the global airline business; both will have ramifications—particularly in terms of flight tracking and navigation—that are likely to reverberate in commercial aviation for years to come.