Beginning 15 February, the US FAA will allow properly equipped and approved twin-engine airliners to fly oceanic and polar routes that are indefinitely out of range of emergency airports along the way.

The new rule is intended to boost dispatch reliability for carriers when alternate airports along a route are not available for landing due to inclement weather conditions, said FAA air carrier operations branch manager Robert Reich yesterday at a press conference.

A typical extended operations (ETOPS) approval for carriers flying twin-engine aircraft today is 180min, though United Air Lines has one approval for 207min.

With the limit opened up, however, carriers will boost the chances of being able to fly the most efficient routes as the number of alternative airports will be greater. “The rule has mechanisms for twins to go any length and any duration from an alternate airport, subject to the capabilities of the aircraft,” says Reich.

FAA officials say the increased flexibility will become increasingly important as flights over both poles increase from 1,600 a day to 3,200 a day by 2010.

To obtain approvals, an aircraft will need fire suppression systems sized for the requested time-to-alternate duration and adequate emergency oxygen supplies for the crew and the passengers. The aircraft will also have to carry automated external defibrillators.

Otherwise, the same weather reporting, training and diversion accommodation requirements as currently required will apply.

Prior to the new rules, developed by a FAA/industry advisory committee starting in 2000, any operations greater than 60min from a landing site required approval, says FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nicholas Sabatini.

The rules were originally developed for piston powered aircraft, but where kept in place when more reliable turbine engines came of age. “The industry wanted to go beyond” the 60min rule, says Sabatini, “but we authorized each applicant by deviation to the rule,” he says.

FAA administrator Marion Blakey says the new rule will also boost aviation safety as it requires tri- and quad-engine aircraft - those for which there are currently no ETOPS rules - to meet the same standards as the twin-engine planes for flights over the poles or farther than 180min from an alternate airport.

Carriers flying three- and four-engine aircraft will have a grace period before the rules kick in: one year to get their program started; six years to install appropriately sized fire detection and suppression systems, and eight years to obtain certification for the modified aircraft, says Sabatini.