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ROUTES OFFER NEW OPPORTUNITIES
Nonstop flights between
North America and Asia via the North Pole, while long recognized
as advantageous, have only now become practical. Increased access
to Russian airspace, the gradual liberalization of bilateral agreements,
and growing demand for international service to and from China are
among the factors that have helped make the new routes viable.
Although the new cross-polar
routes take international flights over previously untraveled territory,
commercial airlines have been flying in the polar region north of
the Arctic Circle for more than 40 years. In 1954, Scandinavian
Airlines System (SAS) inaugurated DC-6B service from Copenhagen
to Los Angeles via Sondre Stromfjord. In 1957, SAS began polar service
from Copenhagen to Tokyo via Anchorage. From that time through the
mid-1980s, flights through the polar region increased as Anchorage
became the primary stopping point for passenger traffic between
Europe and East Asia. In 1983, Finnair inaugurated the first nonstop
service from Europe to Japan by flying from Helsinki north through
the polar region and down the Bering Strait to Tokyo.
Today, hundreds of flights
operate each week over the interior of Russia en route between Europe
and Asia. Similarly, a large volume of traffic crosses the Atlantic
north of Iceland and the Arctic Circle on flights between Europe
and the West Coast of North America.
Development of the new
cross-polar routes began in 1994 when the Russian government initiated
work with the airlines and the international community to establish
a series of polar routes through its airspace. By mid-1998, the
four cross-polar routes were defined and made available for demonstration
flights. The first official polar route flight by a commercial airline
was conducted in July 1998. U.S. and Asian airlines then conducted
more than 650 demonstration flights under special arrangements with
Russian authorities. Today, airlines operate nonstop 747 and 777
service to destinations in Asia via the polar routes.
The opening of the polar routes benefits airlines and passengers
in several ways. The required flight distances from North America
to Asia are substantially reduced, allowing new city pairs to be
connected with direct service. As a result, airlines are able to
bring even better service to passengers by offering nonstop flying
from North America to more Asian destinations.
The more direct routing
also provides significant time and fuel savings. Flight times are
reduced by an hour or more, and fuel requirements are reduced by
several thousand pounds. The savings are even greater if a polar
route eliminates the need for an intermediate stop. The combined
effect of these savings is reduced operating costs, lower emissions
levels, and more competitive fares for passengers.
For example, a flight
from New York to Hong Kong via a conventional route requires at
least one intermediate stop for fuel. Given the conventional airways,
nonstop service is impractical because the circuitous routing results
in flights of more than 7,900 nmi. With the new cross-polar routes,
the Hong Kong flight can be flown nonstop because of more direct
routing and reduced headwinds in the polar region (fig.
1 and fig.
As a general rule, cross-polar
routes provide time and distance savings only on flights from North
America to Asia. On the return flight, the polar tracks are less
advantageous than conventional, more southerly routes, which typically
benefit from strong tailwinds.
The main cross-polar
route, known as Polar 1, generally offers efficient routing from
West Coast cities such as Vancouver and Los Angeles to destinations
on the Indian subcontinent. The other main cross-polar routes, Polar
2, 3, and 4, generally are for flights connecting cities in eastern
and central North America with destinations in China and East Asia.
Several interlinking airways among the four major routes provide
additional flexibility (fig.
Current markets served
by nonstop polar routes include New York and Newark to Hong Kong,
Chicago to Hong Kong and Beijing, Detroit to Beijing and Shanghai,
and Vancouver to Delhi.
Several challenges must be met before the polar route system will
be able to accommodate the expected traffic growth for these routes.
Improvements in communications and surveillance capabilities will
increase the efficiency and capacity of the system.
The governments of Russia,
China, Canada, and the United States are continuing to develop the
polar route system through the ongoing activities of the Russian-American
Coordinating Group for Air Traffic. Support from the airlines through
the International Air Transport Association has been very important
and will continue to be critical to the future development of the
polar route system.
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