June 13: Voice of The (Anchorage) Times on polar air routes and Anchorage:

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

It's now official. Canada and Russia have opened their skies to a new polar air route for long-haul, non-stop flights between major U.S. cities and key destinations in Asia.

Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Washington, Montreal and Toronto, for instance, will have direct flights to such cities as Beijing, New Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific tested the route on a flight from Toronto to Hong Kong that clipped almost three hours from the existing route, which includes a stop in Anchorage.

By skipping Anchorage, and traveling on a route passing within 50 nautical miles of the North Pole and heading south over Russia, Mongolia and China, the trip was made in 14 hours and 59 minutes. ''Huge savings in fuel costs as well as time'' make the route attractive, a spokesman for Cathy Pacific said.

The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Cathy Pacific declined to disclose how much money it saved by flying the new route, but one aviation expert estimated that it could have been in the range of $32,902 one way. ''At that rate,'' the Journal said, ''an airline making a one-way flight each day of the year from New York to Hong Kong would save $12 million in a year.''

That's grim news for Anchorage and hopes that continue to burn here that passenger service to faraway lands can be revived here on a year-round basis.

Unfortunately, the International Air Transport Association, with membership from 270 airlines around the world, says the new polar route will save millions of dollars a year in landing fees and fuel costs, and reap additional savings that will come from not having to put personnel in intermediate cities such as Anchorage.

The new route opens on July 1, a date by which Russia has agreed to ''normalize'' commercial traffic in its air space. But saying the route is open is one thing, making it work is another. The hang-up: Russia at this time lacks sufficient traffic control equipment and personnel to manage much more than a few flights a day.

But it's gearing up for more while working to sign bilateral overflight agreements on a country-by-country basis. ''The U.S. State Department will push to get American carriers permanent access to the polar routes by year's end,'' the Journal story said.

All of this points to the fact that Anchorage's future international air commerce will be more and more focused on cargo, rather than passengers - until such time, at least, that Alaska becomes a prime destination for a lot more air travelers than it now attracts.

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