Europe reviews safety rules for ultra-long range routes

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Julian Moxon/PARIS

The European Joint Aviation Authorities has established a new Long Range Operations (LROPS) regulatory working group to review safety standards relating to ultra-long range flights. The number of engines on the aircraft is only one of many safety considerations involved, the group believes.

The recent opening of long-range flights over the North Pole (Flight International 20-26 March) has focused concern on the adequacy of emergency diversion airports. Currently, twin-engined aircraft flying such routes are subject to extended-range twin operations (ETOPS) rules limiting them to a maximum 180min single-engined flying time from the nearest diversion airfield. Four-engined aircraft are exempt, but the JAA says they should be included in new LROPS rules to cover non-engine related threats such as cargo fires or serious onboard medical emergencies. The JAA says: "The number of engines is not the issue. We're only considering safety-related questions. There can be no reduction in safety for a transpolar route [compared with short-haul] and we're not convinced that is the case at present."

The authority expresses doubts about the adequacy of diversion airports such as Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen in the Arctic Sea, north of Norway. The 45m (150ft) wide runway, with no manoeuvring space at its end, is at the base of a deep glacial valley. "The challenge for a 747 pilot making an emergency landing at this airport for the first time, at night, in 20í below, is worrying," says a source.

As well as European states, the LROPS initiative includes Airbus, Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing and the FAA have also formed a separate group studying long-range issues, but the JAA says the European approach is "broader based".

Vice president of Airbus' product integrity division Wolfgang Didszuhn says: "By 2010, traffic growth in the extreme areas [Arctic, Siberia, Himalayas, Antarctic, South Pacific] will present a serious challenge for operational safety." He claims that the diversion rate for twins from cruising altitude on flights of more than 5h is "about double" that for quads, for which the diversion rate is "around 11 per million flight hours". He adds: "We're working very closely with the USA. All of us are pulling in the same direction."

Airbus, which is about to begin flight testing its new long-range four-engined A340-600, wants LROPS to become the long-range standard for all aircraft operating "in areas where survivability is uncertain". It says LROPS criteria "should control the design, maintenance and operation of aircraft to ensure that diversions are not needed at all". The JAA, however, points to cargo fires as an example of the kind of non-engine emergency that would require an immediate diversion to an Arctic airport where passengers might have to use emergency exit slides.