Ocean Crossings with Minimum Three Engines

Q: Wasn’t there a law mandating that jets crossing the ocean had to have at least three engine? How did the 767 and 777 get around this?

Back in the 1980s something called ETOPS or Extended (range) Twin-Engine Operations came about, by which aircraft with fewer than three powerplants were allowed to fly across the ocean provided certain conditions were met. These conditions include demonstrated engine reliability and maximum allowable distances to diversion airports (a full rundown of the rules would be complicated; these are the gist). Currently there are ETOPS procedures across both the Atlantic and Pacific, and even the 737 now makes Hawaii-to-California flights (for Aloha Airlines). Airlines can certify the 737, 757, 767, A300, A330, and 777 for ETOPS. Each company must apply for the right, and must meet the various requirements.

While the four-engine 747 was once the premier airliner to Europe, the much smaller 767 is now the trans-Atlantic aircraft of choice (well, the airlines’ choice at least). In the Pacific, the 777 is gaining ground on a market still dominated by the 747. I have no qualms about flying across the ocean in a twin-engine airliner. Trying to argue two-versus-four in the name of safety is a real hair-splitter.

In perhaps the ultimate demonstration of ETOPS ability, Continental recently began flying its 777 nonstop between Newark and Hong Kong.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.