Study: Feasible to fly commercial flights over North Pole

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

OTTAWA, Canada (AP) -- Flying commercial flights over the North Pole would cut hours off the circuitous routes planes now fly between North America and Asia and save airlines hundreds of millions of dollars each year, according to a new study commissioned by Canada and Russia.

The study found that it would be feasible to fly nonstop between such cities as Vancouver and Beijing or New York and Bangkok.

It was done by Canadian and Russian aviation agencies and found that the project would need an investment of nearly $37 million to improve the air navigation infrastructure in the North. That would include training air traffic controllers and establishing communications lines.

Flight times could be cut by two hours or more if airlines use polar routes, said the study by Nav Canada, the country's privatized air traffic control authority, and the Federal Aviation Authority of Russia.

''The new routes are shorter,'' said the study. ''Stopovers are avoided, reducing both passenger travel time and airline operating costs. Airline flight times are reduced and fuel, maintenance and operation costs are reduced.''

The end of the Cold War has opened airspace over Russia and China, which can now be flown by newer aircraft with ranges of between 6,000- and 9,000 nautical miles, the study notes.

The current flight time for a Boeing 747 traveling from Toronto to Delhi via the traditional North Pacific route is 15 hours and 25 minutes. Nav Canada estimates a more direct polar route would trim that by about two hours. That would save an airline $12,449 per flight or $4.5 million a year based on daily, one-way trips.

The study looked at 33 potential city pairs, examining fuel requirements, airports and wind and temperature data for each month. Those were based on 10 years of weather observations by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Weather Service.

United Airlines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. already operate limited test flights over the North Pole. Air Canada says it also intends to do some test flights -- maybe between Vancouver and Hong Kong -- before year's end.

It's not yet known how shifting to such routes would impact Alaska.

FedEx and other cargo carriers use Anchorage's location between Asia and the Lower 48 as a pit stop to refuel jets, change crews and swap cargo.

By stopping in Anchorage instead of flying directly between the Lower 48 and Asia, they can carry less fuel and more freight.

In 1993, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia opened air routes across its Far East region. It since has allowed several polar route demonstration flights by foreign airlines and currently allows up to 64 international polar route flights a week.

But airlines must have special permission for such flights and their governments must have bilateral air agreements with Russia.

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