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 . . .