DALLAS — The aviation industry has many acronyms that are used to reference everything from take-off delays to airport names, and one that stands out is ETOPS. Anyone who has traveled on a long-haul flight probably flew on an ‘ETOPS aircraft without even realizing it.
The acronym stands for “extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards” or the humorous “engines turn or passengers swim,” as it is commonly referred to in the aviation industry. This abbreviation refers to aircraft that have few or no airports to land at, mostly referring to airplanes flying over oceans.
In the 1960s, two-engine aircraft had a 60-minute rule, which restricted them to a 60-minute diversion area. However, before an airline can fly a long route over water, it has to make sure the plane receives an ETOPS rating. This means the aircraft has sufficient communications systems, redundancies, and a fire suppression system to ensure it can fly safely if one engine fails.
Aircraft manufacturers were able to construct quad jets, larger aircraft to operate, that had a high fuel consumption. However, they did not get as many orders. For this type of airplane, to operate a large aircraft profitably, they had to ensure that the aircraft was always full.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Boeing 747 was the main aircraft flying between the United States and Europe, but airlines would only operate flights once daily to ensure that all 400 seats were occupied. For example, airlines were only permitted to operate single full flights traveling on high-demand routes such as New York to London or New York to Paris in order to have any opportunity of filling the aircraft.
However, in order for airlines to fly non-stop routes between smaller cities, planes needed to be smaller while also being certified to fly across the Atlantic. Thus, three-engine planes, or tri-jets, were created. Unlike two-engine planes, three-engine planes were not subject to the 60-minute rule and were easily allowed to fly between the United States and Europe.
We should also mention that these aircraft have different maintenance rules for mechanics and are also equipped with extra life rafts inside the cabin on the roof.
Evolution of ETOPS Ratings
The ETOPS rule was developed in the 1980s and has been the model for the development of commercial aircraft. In 1985, Trans World Airlines (TWA) was the first airline to receive permission to fly their Boeing 767 aircraft from Boston to Paris.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the first ETOPS certification rating, which was 120 minutes. This meant that two-engine aircraft were not allowed to be in the air for more than 120 minutes of flying time from the closest airport that could accommodate the aircraft. It was a precaution that was taken in the event of an emergency landing.
Since then, confidence in the reliability of engines and aircraft has increased substantially. In 1988, the FAA changed the ETOPS regulation to increase the diversion period from 120 minutes to 180 minutes. This meant that an aircraft that received the ETOPS 180 rating would be able to fly anywhere as long as it was 180 minutes from a diversion airport that was suitable for the aircraft.
However, even though the aircraft may have an ETOPS rating, the airline needed to have a special cabin and flight crew, a special maintenance plan, special dispatchers, special passenger recovery plans, and special fuel quantities. Then, in 1990, Boeing manufactured the first aircraft with an ETOPS rating of 180 upon entry into service, the Boeing 777.
The Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA), which is the aviation authority across multiple European countries, gave the Boeing 777 an ETOPS rating of 120. The JAA stated that European carriers operating the 777 had to show a “trouble-free” experience under a 120 ETOPS rating before receiving a 180-minute ETOPS rating for the Boeing 777.
Airbus Joins Boeing
Years later, in 2007, the FAA decided that twin-engine aircraft operations that are registered in the United States would be able to increase to the 180 ETOPS rating. In 2009, the Airbus A330 became the first aircraft to receive ETOPS-240 approval. Two years after that, in 2011, the FAA gave Boeing’s type design, equipped with GE engines, an ETOPS rating of 330 minutes of extended operations.
In 2015, Air New Zealand (NZ) operated the first ETOPS-330 flight between the carrier’s hub in Auckland and Buenos Aires, Argentina, using a Boeing 777-200 ER. Then, in May 2014, the Boeing 787 received an ETOPS 330 rating that allowed Chilean-based LAN Airlines to use its Boeing 787 Dreamliners instead of an Airbus A340 between its Santiago to Sydney and Santiago to Auckland routes.
Before Airbus introduced the Airbus A350XWB in 2015, regulations in North America and Europe gave aircraft an ETOPS rating of 180 minutes upon entry into service. Additionally, the Airbus A350XWB was the first aircraft to receive an ETOPS rating of 370 from European authorities before entering into service. The Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental aircraft also received an ETOPS rating of 330 in 2015, and it was the first four-engine aircraft to receive a rating of 330.
Small Planes, Big Oceans
Today, twin-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A321neo can be seen flying on transatlantic routes between the United States and Europe. Without ETOPS, airlines were unable to fly long and skinny routes (small demand) between smaller cities using smaller aircraft.
For example, such flights included those from Hartford, Connecticut, to Dublin, Ireland. Dublin-based Aer Lingus (EI) now operates daily flights between these two cities on an Airbus A321neo.
Previously, Air Canada (AC) flew their 120-seat Airbus A319 with ETOPS certification between St. John’s International Airport (YYT) and London Heathrow Airport (LHR) daily. However, this route is no longer in operation. British Airways (BA) also previously operated flights between New York John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) and London City Airport (LCY) using an Airbus A318.
The eastbound flight flew nonstop between JFK and LCY, but on the westbound flight, the aircraft would stop in Shannon, Ireland, before continuing on to JFK. French leisure carrier La Compagnie operates flights between New York-Newark Liberty and Milan, Italy, which are scheduled for 9 hours and 44 minutes on an Airbus A321neos.
These routes would not have been possible just three decades ago, as now small planes can fly over big oceans. Through ETOPS ratings, the world is closer together, and nonstop flights between destinations are now possible.
Featured image: W2Fly A350XWB EC-NOI. The A350XWB was the first aircraft to receive the current maximum ETOPS 370 rating. Photo: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways