Boeing seeks exemption from Pacific flight rule

2-engine 777 can fly farther from land, builder, airlines say

April 11, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Boeing Co. and four airlines are seeking an exemption from government rules so the company's 777 jet can fly farther from land. The purpose is to allow the plane, which has two engines, to fly across the Pacific even when emergency airfields along the route are closed by bad weather.

The effort has created a dispute with Airbus, Boeing's only major competitor and a proponent of four-engine planes, as well as a re-evaluation by safety experts of whether it is still appropriate to set safety rules governing oceanic flights based on how many engines a plane has.

"I'm not so sure that makes a lot of sense," Chet Ekstrand, a Boeing vice president, said of the rules. "The vast majority of reasons for diverting have nothing to do with engines."

The most frequent, Ekstrand said, are passenger illness.

But John Leahy, senior vice president for sales at Airbus, said in a recent briefing for Wall Street analysts that twin-engine planes might be adequate for the Atlantic but not the Pacific.

"You can put the North Atlantic and two continents into the Pacific and there is still water to spare," Leahy said.

Delta, Continental, American and United airlines asked the Federal Aviation Administration last month for the change, which would allow the 777 jets to make flights of up to nearly 3 1/2 hours from emergency airfields instead of the current three-hour limit. The agency is considering the idea.

Safety issues

"There is a level of safety afforded by 180 minutes today," Tom McSweeny, the agency's associate administrator for aircraft certification, said in an interview. "If somebody wants to entertain more than 180 minutes, they have to propose to us what level of safety they want to meet, and we have to agree with that."

The pilots union at American Air Lines, the Allied Pilots Association, asked the agency to reject the request, or at least to hold public hearings on it. The union said that the farther from an airport an airplane gets, the greater the risk.

"The pilot has interests coincident with the passenger's," said Richard Lavoy, president of the union. "We're on board with them, not sitting in either a government office or a corporate office, calculating risk."

But a larger union, the Air Line Pilots Association, backs the change, partly because the airlines are volunteering to a variety of other steps to reduce risk.

For example, the airlines have agreed to eliminate rules that let planes fly even if a fuel gauge is broken or if the auxiliary power unit, an extra jet engine for making electricity, is not working.

Future of remote airports

The issue is also focusing attention on the uncertain future of remote airports in the Pacific, no longer needed for refueling stops or strategic assets in the Cold War.

The Navy pulled out of Midway Island and gave it to the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 1997. The Air Force gave up another field, near the western end of the Aleutians, in March 1995. Both airstrips are now run by contractors.

Before the jet era, the aviation agency required two-engine planes to stay within an hour's flying time of a suitable airfield, but in 1985, accepting the airlines' arguments that jets fail only one-tenth as often as piston engines, the agency extended that to as much as two hours.

Still, the airlines wanted more flexibility as they stopped funneling most international passengers through gateways such as New York and London and started flying through smaller places such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Ala. Traffic on those routes helped build a market for smaller two-engine planes.

To allow planes like that to fly across the Atlantic, the aviation agency in 1988 approved flights of up to three hours from emergency landing sites. And soon after the twin-engine 777 was introduced in 1995, it qualified for the three-hour rule.

3 hours not always enough

But three hours, enough to allow 757s and 767s to cross the Atlantic without going far out of their way to stay close to Newfoundland or Iceland, is sometimes not enough for the Pacific. If two or three airports in Alaska or Siberia are closed by bad weather, the three-hour limit would be exceeded by four to 11 minutes, about 28 to 77 miles, for the 777. For the 777, three hours is 1,260 miles; the airlines are seeking 1,450 miles.

United Airlines wants to begin flying its 777s to Tokyo from San Francisco this year. To avoid a more southerly route that could stretch the trip from San Francisco to 12 1/2 hours from 11, it would need those extra minutes to reach an airfield.

Leahy, the Airbus official, said: "If you lose an engine on a quad, you have an annoying situation. If you lose an engine on a twin, you have an emergency."

But Ekstrand, the Boeing official, said that the longer flying times to emergency sites were manageable by the 777 and that problems on the plane were extremely rare. Based on 1998 operating statistics, he said, if a 777 flew about three times every two days, it would have to make an unscheduled landing once every 87 years.

United Airlines said that since 1986, when it began flights across the Pacific, its planes have diverted only three times, each time because of a sick passenger.

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