FedEx has taken delivery of its first of at least 30 Boeing 777 freighters and plans to use the new type to operate non-stop services between the US and Asia from January.

FedEx CEO David Bronczek formally took the keys of the aircraft at a ceremony on 22 September at Boeing's Everett plant. FedEx will fly the aircraft from Everett's Paine Field to Memphis, Tennessee on 25 September and will initially operate the 777 on proving flights between its Memphis and Anchorage hubs.

While FedEx will be able to carry revenue cargo on the initial Memphis-Anchorage flights the 777s are intended to replace and supplement Boeing MD-11s on transpacific routes. FedEx Express International president Mike Ducker says the carrier will be ready to use the 777F on scheduled transpacific services in January. At that point FedEx will have two 777s in service as its second aircraft is now scheduled for delivery in November.

FedEx has already trained 78 of its pilots for the 777 and installed two full motion 777 simulators at its Memphis hub.

Ducker says FedEx will operate the initial pair of aircraft on a US-Asia route but "hasn't yet determined the specific routing in terms of city pairs". However, FedEx sources say China will be the first scheduled destination for 777F. FedEx operates a hub at Guangzhou in southern China.

Ducker says the 777F will allow FedEx to cut shipping times between the US and Asia by one to three hours. Currently FedEx transpacific services between the continental US and Asia require a fuel stop in Anchorage. The 777 has the range to operate these services non-stop without payload restrictions. Ducker says eventually 777Fs will also be used on direct flights between Europe and Asia.

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"The 777 freighter is a game changer," he told reporters during a briefing prior to the delivery ceremony. "I believe it will improve our competitiveness substantially in the global network."

Bronczek at the delivery ceremony singled out the 777F's "unprecedented range" and said the aircraft will "be able to provide unparalleled service to customers". In addition to improved transit times, Bronczek says the 777F will allow FedEx to improve its reliability and lower its costs.

The 777 becomes the largest and longest range freighter in the 650-aircraft FedEx fleet. FedEx, which had not taken delivery of a production freighter from Boeing since the 727, also becomes the first US operator of the 777F.

Before today Boeing had delivered eight 777Fs to four customers - Air France, LAN, Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE) and German bank DVB. Emirates is operating the DAE-owned aircraft and AeroLogic the DVB-owned aircraft. Boeing also has completed two additional 777Fs which are have been parked in the desert as part of a delivery deferral arrangement with Air France.

With 30 firm aircraft on order, FedEx is the largest 777F customer. Ducker says the carrier's third and fourth 777F will be delivered in the first calender quarter of 2010.

The last aircraft in the first batch of 15 are now scheduled to be delivered by April 2014. The last aircraft in the second batch of 15 are now scheduled to be delivered by April 2019. FedEx also has options for 15 additional 777Fs and is looking at 777 converted freighters.

Despite the economic downturn Ducker says FedEx believes now is a good time to add the 777F to the FedEx fleet. "Right now we're seeing positive signs," Ducker says of the global economy, adding Asia in particular China is leading the recovery.

"As sales continue to improve, an inventory restocking we believe we'll have to occur. We are starting to see that now," Ducker says. "We've reached bottom and traffic is beginning to climb from multi-year lows."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news