Monday, June 11, 2012

ETOPS (aka last week's photo puzzle)

Lots of sharp eyes out there! Many of you noticed the ETOPS marked on the nose landing gear door. ETOPS is defined by the FAA as Extended Operations; formerly it was Extend Range Operations with two-engine airplanes; the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines ETOPS as Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards. (Alternate tongue-in-cheek definition: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim!) What ETOPS represents in practical terms is the ability to use a twin-engine aircraft on routes where there are few suitable airports along the way in case of an emergency landing. The standard (non-ETOPS) is sixty minutes: There must always be an adequate diversion airport within one hour flying time at single-engine speed. ETOPS allows routes with longer flying times to a suitable alternate airport. The obvious application is long over-water (trans-oceanic) routes, but polar flights are also included. There are still a few land areas too where adequate airports are few and far between, such as the Amazon, the Himalayas, Australia, and parts of Asia.

In 1985, TWA was the first air carrier to receive an ETOPS rating, which allowed for 90-minute diversion range on its B767 flights between St. Louis and Frankfurt, Germany. After further experience, this was extended to 120 minutes. In 1988, the FAA extended ETOPS to allow flights 180 minutes from the nearest airport. This puts nearly the entire surface of the planet within range of an ETOPS-180 aircraft, and further extensions are being considered. While 120 or 180 minutes may not sound so serious, let me remind you that they represent two and three hours, respectively. That's a long time to be flying with one of your engines (and its associated accessories like generators) inoperative. However, the reliability of today's turbofan engines has allowed twin-engine airliners like the B777 to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Australia.

As far as I know, Southwest has no immediate intentions of flying to and from Australia. They are, however, making plans to fly from the US mainland to Hawaii, which requires ETOPS-capable aircraft. Some of Southwest's new B737-800s do have ETOPS Type Approval, which means that the airframe/engine combination satisfies the basic ETOPS requirements. But buying the proper aircraft is only half the battle; the airline must also prove to regulators that it is capable of operating ETOPS flights. This usually involves crew and technician training and procedures, as well as a demonstrated operational history of operating long-haul flights. Interestingly, not all of Southwest's new B738s are ETOPS aircraft:

Why does this matter? It matters because in order for an individual aircraft to maintain its ETOPS status, it has to be maintained and serviced to ETOPS requirements. Thus, it can be very important for crews working on an airplane to be aware that it is an ETOPS aircraft. Examples of disqualifying events:
  • Maintenance on both engines at the same time - even something as simple as an oil change
  • A non-ETOPS mechanic working on an ETOPS system
  • Excessive oil consumption by the engines or APU (auxiliary power unit)
  • Non-ETOPS-certified parts installed in an ETOPS system

So when will Southwest take off for Hawaii? So far, nobody's been willing to tell me. I'm guessing it won't be until after the end of the summer, but you never know . . .


  1. and, I don't think my replies ever get through...

  2. Allegiant took about 2 years from the time they purchased their 757s to get ETOPS certified for service to Hawaii. They even had to lease a couple of aircraft already painted in Allegiant livery to another airline because it was taking so long.

  3. I believe when United brings their B787s into service they will be ETOPS 330 min certified to allow them to fly a more direct Pacific route from KIAH to Australia.

    YYC Dispatcher