Flying: Not All 777s Are Equal

I spend a very long time Friday on a Continental flight back from London to Houston. Both flights, coming and going were on Boeing 777, which is a really nice airplane for the coach class traveler.

The flights were not so full that we felt crammed in. There was reasonable leg room, and a lot of headroom. There’s no getting around it, the 777 is a big airplane. I’m 5′ 11″ and I can just about stand straight up even at the very outside seat near the wall of the aircraft.

The flight to London was a lot nicer than the return leg. The outbound flight was on a refitted 777. I didn’t think that these aircraft were old enough to warrant a refit, but I’m told that Continental is refitting one a month.

After the refit there is an entirely new entertainment system. It presents 350 movies and TV shows on-demand, displayed on updated widescreen format touch screen LCDs in the seat backs. The user interface is nice and obvious. I watched a number of HBO Comedy specials during the 7 1/2 hour flight.

The upgraded aircraft also feature real US style 110vac power outlets for laptop users. In coach class there’s one for every two seats. One per seat in Business/First. This would have been incredibly useful except that flying out as I did on a Saturday evening I felt no compelling reason to work all night on my laptop.

In contrast, the return flight was on an old 777, with the older style entertainment system. Only a couple of things to watch, and even that was of limited duration so it repeated twice during the 10 1/2 hour return flight.

You can certainly tell that the old system uses analog tape decks. They’re Sony high band 8mm, and the tape noise in the picture was really startling. I’m not accustomed to that since virtually everything we see these days is from a digital source.

The new system must be based on hard drive storage of compressed digital video. I wonder if it’s still from Sony? Except for vertical market applications, like air travel, analog video gear (Hi8, S-VHS, etc) hasn’t been widely used in years in professional circles. Most TV stations and production facilities hang onto the tape decks so that they can deal with legacy tapes as needed, but all new gear features some form of digital recording scheme. So no tape analog noise.

I wonder if anyone actually cleans the heads on the Hi8 decks in airplanes? Like old VHS decks they have rotating heads that tend to accumulate oxide particles from the tape. They need to be cleaned routinely or the tape-to-head contact is eroded and playback suffers. Who could tell with the crappy old seat back LCDs.

On my next trip to the UK I will inquire as to whether the aircraft have been upgraded. That will weigh in my decision of which carrier to chose as well as which specific flight.