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Flying Giant Pandas Over 8,000 Miles

Three pandas got a private Boeing 777 for their journey from Washington, D.C. to China.

The giant pandas flew from Washington Dulles to Chengdu, China. (Photo: FedEx)

Transporting giant pandas is no simple feat. FedEx transports over 10 million items each day, but a special delivery came on Wednesday as the Memphis, Tenn.-based company carried three beloved panda bears from Washington, D.C. to Chengdu, China.

Embarking on a 19-hour journey, the pandas’ departure puts an end to a 50-year-long partnership between the U.S. and China. According to CNN, China even admits that it uses the loveable bears as part of a diplomacy strategy. The Chinese government owns the pandas and their offspring, which the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has paid roughly $500,000 per year to maintain.

Transporting Fuzzy Diplomats

FedEx shared a bit more insight into the logistics of transporting the pandas. 25-year-old Mei Xiang, 26-year-old Tian Tian, and their three-year-old cub, Xiao Qi Ji, were loaded onto their own private 777-200 Freighter on Wednesday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport.

FedEx’s 777 with a special panda decal (Photo: FedEx)

A FedEx spokesperson confirmed to AirlineGeeks that – aside from staff, food, water, and other supplies – the pandas were the only cargo on the flight. A captain, relief captain, first officer, loadmaster, and animal care experts were among the transport team.

Registered as N886FD, the 777 aircraft was also fitted with a panda-themed decal. Following a brief stop in Anchorage, the three pandas arrived in Chengdu on Thursday.

FedEx placed a special decal on the 777-200 Freighter aircraft. (Photo: FedEx)

“I remember fondly when we brought Mei Xiang and Tian Tian over decades ago, and we are proud to once again be entrusted with transporting these beloved animals through our global network,” said Richard Smith, president and chief executive officer, Airline and International at FedEx in a press release.

The pandas were placed in custom containers, which they were acclimated to a few days before the transport. Bamboo, toys, and treats were also onboard to create a ‘first class’ experience.

A look inside the containers used to transport the giant pandas. (Photo: FedEx)

“These bears are special. Certainly don’t want anything happening to them on my watch,” FedEx’s 777 chief pilot Ron Zampini told WTOP. “Our No. 1 objective is to get these lovable bears to Chengdu safe.”

A Long History of Panda Logistics

While it isn’t clear what the future holds for so-called ‘panda diplomacy’ in the U.S., FedEx has spent decades airlifting giant pandas across the world. Starting with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2000, the cargo operator has transported 15 different pandas on 10 separate flights.

Loading the pandas onto the 777 aircraft (Photo: FedEx)

These high-profile shipments have always been donated by FedEx, the company says. In addition to U.S.-China transport, FedEx has also carried giant pandas to Canada, France, and Scotland over the years.

“It’s the highlight of my career, certainly with FedEx,” Zampini also told WTOP.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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