Eastern Airlines will not be flying its fleet over open water any time soon. The carrier, which previously announced plans to operate both passenger and cargo 777 service, and hopes for expanded 767-300 route options came up short in its efforts to realize FAA certification for Extended Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS). As a result it cannot operate trips more than 60 minutes from a suitable diversion airport.
In a memo to employees reviewed by PaxEx.Aero company President and CEO Steve Harfst called the situation “a very disappointing setback for our airline, but it is a reality we must learn from.”
The test flight program was planned for four segments of flying over the Pacific. After arriving in Honolulu, HI on the second segment the FAA inspectors indicated that the validation flight program was being suspended. Additional details are expected to be delivered to the carrier in the days.
These are expected to include specifics around the reasoning for suspension of the program.
Even before the report arrives, however, the carrier has initiated a weekly program with the flight ops and tech ops teams to address areas identified internally as needing improvement. They include improving aircraft reliability, more focused training, and better communication.
The original ETOPS testing program was reported to include JFK-Honolulu, Honolulu-Guam, Guam-Anchorage, and Anchorage-JFK.
Flight tracking data suggests the initial flight diverted to Oakland after making it part way into the Pacific.
Such diversions can be part of the test program initiated by the FAA. Or it could have been a real need. Either way, the aircraft continued to Honolulu a couple days later. That’s where the test program was cancelled by the FAA.
The 767-300 is still in Hawaii awaiting a return to the mainland under special authority. That flight is expected to operate Monday evening.
The letter continues:
[W]hile setbacks such as these are difficult to bear, we will not ignore the issues that have been raised. We will use this as an opportunity to assess our operation and make improvements that will ultimately lead to success…
We remain resolute and steadfast in our goal of operating an airline and a company that we can all be proud of. We recognize that true success sometimes never comes without failure to learn from. We remain committed to operating our airline to ETOPS standards, never compromising safety, and operating a company that follows best practices in all areas.
ETOPS qualification is not a trivial accomplishment. Airlines can spend years planning to prove their competence to the FAA. Southwest Airlines realized that goal in February 2019, with several proving flights involved. JetBlue similarly accomplished it in August 2021, also with many long-haul trips as part of the proving.
But those flights are only the final portion of demonstrating qualifications to the FAA. Typically airlines spend months to years working through the organizational and planning requirements. Tabletop exercises, with flight – and irregularity – simulations are also part of the process.
What this means for Eastern’s 777 operation remains to be seen. Without the ETOPS operation cargo opportunities remain limited. And while the company was still going to try to launch passenger service with the type as well, the cargo pivot was far more likely to deliver profits in the short term.
More broadly, a report also suggests the US Department of Defense revoked Eastern’s authority to operate military charters.
This would massively reduce the company’s available opportunities.
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