Travel: Two engines bad?

ANYONE who saw the film Rain Man will recall Dustin Hoffman's character's insistence that he would fly only on Qantas, since it has never suffered a passenger fatality. Not wishing to tempt fate, the Australian airline keeps quiet about its remarkable record. Safety has never been an issue airlines have bragged about, since this could backfire horribly. And, according to Andy Plews, a United Airlines spokesman, 'It is most unusual for any airline to question the safety standards of other carriers.'

Yet the new Virgin Territory brochure looks as if it is doing just that. The subject is ETOPS - which, with a healthy disregard for the conventions of abbreviation, stands for Extended Twin-Engine Aircraft Operations Over Water. It means using planes with two engines for flights across oceans.

The issue hinges on the risk of two engines failing. A twin- engine plane has to keep within a certain range of airports to which it could divert in the event of one engine failing. The rule used to be that it had to be no more than 90 minutes' flying time (with only one engine) away from an airport; recently this was relaxed to two hours. A 747 has a three- engine margin of failure since it can keep going on just one engine, so jumbos are allowed to take any route across water.

Twin-engined planes take longer, steering closer to land than other aircraft. But cost-savings make them an increasingly popular choice among airlines. Not Virgin Atlantic, however, the carrier that operates Virgin Territory's flights. Like Qantas, it has an accident-free record. 'We like four engines across the Big Pond,' the brochure boasts. Virgin says this is simply to communicate the fact it uses only four-engined Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s on its transatlantic flights, and maintains it would never criticise other airlines' safety standards. In which case, the next phrase in the brochure is curious: 'We think two engines are a bit stingy]'

Passengers contemplating the prospect of two hours' flying on one engine may well concur, and perhaps Virgin should be congratulated for bringing the debate into the open. Its rivals might not agree.

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