Sitting in my window seat on a Southwest 737 MAX8, preparing for the short flight from Atlanta to Orlando, I snapped a quick picture of the plane at the gate next to ours. I often do this to get photos to use on our website.
When I got home, I noticed something on the rear of the plane over the aircraft registration.
In smaller writing above the registration, N8325D, there’s another marking. It says 8325 ETOPS.
I’ve heard about ETOPS before and knew it had something to do with flying planes on routes without diversion points. But there’s way more to being an ETOPS-certified plane than that.
What does ETOPS mean?
ETOPS stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards. It’s a rule created by the FAA that permits twin-engine aircraft to fly routes that, at some point, are more than 60 minutes flying time away from the nearest airport suitable for an emergency landing.
Back in the day, twin-engine planes were only allowed to fly on routes within 60 minutes of the nearest airport in case one of the engines failed and the aircraft had to make an emergency landing. That’s because, at the time, that was the longest a plane was deemed safe to fly with only one engine.
Only planes with more than two engines could fly the most efficient Trans-Atlantic routes, such as New York to London. This is why those routes were exclusively operated by aircraft like the quad-engine 747 or the tri-engine DC-10, which were not subject to the same rules.
Here’s a great video about the history of ETOPS and how it transformed the global aviation market.
Eventually, in 1985, the FAA granted TWA an ETOPS 120 clearance to fly a twin-engine 767 between Boston and Paris. This meant the plane could fly up to 120 minutes from the nearest airport and was the beginning of the ETOPS era. Besides its official meaning, the acronym is also sometimes said to mean “Engines Turn or Passengers Swim.” Having a working relationship with dark humor in the workplace, I totally get how and why ETOPS got that alternate name.
Airplane technology has come a long way since the 1980s and I have no problems flying a twin-engine plane across an ocean. But I was curious about what made a plane worthy of the ETOPS certification. Was it in some way different than other planes?
In short, yes and no.
As it turns out, a plane with an ETOPS certification isn’t all that different from the same plane without the certification. For instance, why would a Southwest plane in Atlanta be certified to fly more than 60 minutes from the nearest diversion airport?
It turns out that besides flying from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Dallas, El Paso, Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Jose, the same plane makes the trip from San Jose to Honolulu and back to Los Angeles. All flights from the mainland to Hawaii need to be ETOPS certified.
Not all planes are ETOPS certified. Airlines must apply for each airframe and route, and airplanes flying that route must meet specific requirements.
Planes that can fly further away from a diversion airport have specific requirements. They are held to a more rigorous maintenance schedule, require additional training for the flight and cabin crew, have a passenger diversion plan for a route, and have extra redundancy for certain systems, such as electrical, hydraulics, fire suppression, and communications.
Because of the extra costs for maintenance and training, airlines only certify planes that need to be certified. This isn’t to say that a non-ETOPS certified aircraft can’t fly over the ocean, as this American Airlines flight did on a trip to Hawaii. They’re just not approved to make the trip safely.
Currently, the furthest a plane can fly from a diversion airport is the Airbus A350XWB which has an ETOPS-370 certification. This means the only place the airplane can not fly is directly over Antarctica.
With twin-engine airplanes being able to fly almost anywhere, if they have sufficient ETOPS certification, does this mean the end of quad-engine planes like the A380? For now, probably not. There’s still a market for high-volume planes in certain markets that a twin-engine aircraft can’t provide.
But with twin-engine planes having an almost unlimited range worldwide, who knows what new routes we might see?
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary