A tale of two airplanes
The world has been shocked with the seemingly related crashes of two 737 Max aircraft. Some of the most widely flown aircraft in the world, the idea that they might not be completely safe is paradigm-shifting for most of us. But there is a story to be told about this airplane in contrast to another that reveals why the recent attacks on regulation might be misguided.
To tell this story, I want to take you back to the 1980s. Back then, aircraft range was limited by a rule called ETOPS, an acronym for Extended Twin Engine Operations. The basis of this rule is the concern that if an airplane has only two engines and one goes out, the plane must be relatively close to an airport to land. Arbitrarily, the rule had been set at 60 minutes. In short, for a twin-engine airplane to fly a route over an ocean, for example, its entire route must be within 60 minutes of somewhere it could land if it lost one engine.
The result was that most trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes had to be flown by airplanes with more than two engines, to theoretically reduce the danger to passengers if one engine became inoperable. It is for that reason that when American Airlines in 1966 put together a request for proposals for a new widebody aircraft, one that called for an efficient two-engined configuration, aircraft-makers Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas responded with three-engine designs, which ultimately became the L-1011 and the DC-10.
Ironically, it was the effort of these two American aircraft manufacturers to address the ETOPS requirement that created an opening for the creation of the European Airbus consortium, the aircraft manufacturer, the company that would ultimately become the biggest competitor to U.S. aircraft giant Boeing. Noticing that Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas had not precisely responded to American Airlines’s request, they proposed a new airplane, the twin-engine A-300 that met American’s requirements exactly.
At the time, Airbus was an unknown quantity. As a result, American ordered DC-10s rather than the Airbus version, and Airbus required massive investments from European governments to avoid going out of business at the time. Ultimately, Airbus would find customers for its A-300, including eventually American…