How far can a Dreamliner go with a 60 minute leash?

Among the many rumors circulating about the return of Boeing‘s 787 Dreamliner to the skies is one which involves the suspension of the ETOPS rating on the plane pending a significant number of flight hours to validate the proposed fixes. The plane entered service with certification to fly a long way from diversion airports; with the GE engines the rating was 330 minutes, more than 5 hours. And while the engines may still operate safely for that long there are concerns about the batteries and just how far from a diversion airport the planes should stray. Without any special ETOPS ratings the limit would be 60 minutes, roughly 400 nautical miles. That limits a lot of routes including many which the 787 was already flying or slated to operate. Here’s a map of (most of) the announced 787 routes showing 60 minute ETOPS blackout zones:

What is most surprising to me is actually how many of the routes DO work, even with this limitation in place. Service between North and South America has a couple small no-go zones but many routes would actually work pretty well. And any deviation from the optimal routings wouldn’t be too significant distance-wise. Between North America and Europe there is a path which allows for 60 minute ETOPS travel, crossing over the southern tip of Greenland as part of the trip. The route is already commonly used, especially eastbound to take advantage of the jetstream, though westbound traffic uses it less often. LOT’s Warsaw-Chicago route could make a go of it with minimal adjustments.

United Airlines‘ planned Denver-Tokyo route doesn’t quite work perfectly, but the diversion required to make it happen isn’t all that bad; Los Angeles to Tokyo would not work so well. And the east-bound versions of these flights typically fly much further south to take advantage of the prevailing winds.

Similarly, Qatar’s planned Europe service would be OK with minor deviations, as would Air India’s.

And most of the Asia service being run by JAL and ANA would be permissible. There are a few routes which will just not work. Houston-Lagos and Santiago-Madrid have chunks of the routes which won’t allow for easy adjustments to meet the non-ETOPS rules.

But, despite my concerns when I started reading about this last night, it seems that the 60 minute limit could actually still fly, so to speak.

No doubt that these “alternate” routes will affect the efficiency of the flights and will take away from the ability to realize the lower operating costs and other benefits that the 787 was supposed to bring to the airlines. That said, having the planes in the air is better than having them grounded. And if the rumored 250,000 hours of no-incident flying to regain ETOPS certification is true then these slightly longer routes might actually help get things back to normal sooner than not.

Assuming the batteries cooperate, of course.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Boeing is scrambling for options that will avoid them having to pay significant penalties to the airlines concerned for grounding the fleet. I doubt the airlines will take the bait plus another emergency landing with smoking batteries is not in the interest of all concerned parties, as it would kill any remaining trust pax have in this type.

  2. Even the 60 would allow airlines with 767s or other aircraft to have more ASMs. May not be 787, but allows for aircraft subs on some of the routes without limiting capacity

  3. Great. Now what’s the patch to stop the window from not entirely blocking out the heat of that unexpected factor, the Sun?

    1. Indeed, Rohit, the AI and CZ planned routes to Oz will not be viable with those limits. And others which might be viable won’t be likely. But it isn’t all bad. Not particularly good, but not all bad.

  4. If there are 49 planes and they Fly ~18 hrs a day, they will be etops again in about a year

  5. As I mentioned in a couple of places already without response, Seth has ignored both wind and ETOPS-required alternate airport availability.
    North Pacific routes have wind, as do all routes . The winter winds are often fierce. Without going to too much detail, winter routes typically fly Eastbound on a very southerly course to avoid severe headwinds. In addition ETOPS-required alternate airports are often not available due to poor weather, more so in the winter.

    Thus the minimum practical ETOPS for Pacific flying is 180 minutes with the seasonal 15% additional, or 207 minutes. Anything less will not work.

    Many existing aircraft flying Pacific routes must carry lower payload when flying in headwinds to allow increased fuel to be carried. Absent ability to fly more southerly the payload penalties will be even higher, thus impairing economics.

    All the furor about ETOPS is not to be convenient for airlines. It is an essential feature for viable B787 operations.

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