Polar route

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General arrangement of polar routes in the late 20th century (left) and in the 2000s (center) and in the Southern Hemisphere (right).

A polar route is an aircraft route across the uninhabited polar ice cap regions.

The Arctic[edit]

The American Federal Aviation Administration now defines the North Polar area of operations as the area north of 78 deg north latitude,[1] which is north of Alaska and most of Siberia. The term "polar route" was originally more general, being applied to great circle routes between Europe and the west coast of North America in the 1950s.[2] SAS was first: their DC-6B flights between Los Angeles and Copenhagen started in 1954. Canadian Pacific DC-6Bs started Vancouver-Amsterdam in 1955, then Pan Am and TWA started West Coast to Paris/London in 1957. SAS was first again, flying Europe to Tokyo via Anchorage with DC-7Cs in February 1957; Air France L1649s and KLM DC-7Cs followed in 1958.

During much of the Cold War the Arctic region was a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and North America; civilian flights from Europe to the Asian Far East were unable to cross the Soviet Union or China and had to use a Middle East route or connect through Alaska across the Arctic region. These Cold War tracks extended from the northern Alaskan coast across Greenland to Europe. Korean Air Lines Flight 902 was shot down in the USSR in 1978 after the crew made gross navigational errors attempting to fly the assigned polar route.

In September 1945 three American generals flew three Boeing B-29 Superfortresses from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō to Chicago in a record-breaking flight, on a great circle route near the Arctic Circle. The flight encountered ice, but the possibility of airline flights was announced, as was the possibility of hostile attacks over the Pole.

Aircraft like the Boeing 747-400 and the Airbus A340, with ranges of around 7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km), were also needed to cover the distances between suitable airports.[3] Before this era, all flights from North America to Asia were routed around the Communist bloc using a series of tracks between Alaska and Japan.

The main obstacle to flights across Russia was the inadequate Russian air traffic control system and a lack of English communication. To solve these issues RACGAT (Russian-American Coordinating Group for Air Traffic) was formed in 1993. By summer 1998 the Russian government gave permission to open four cross-polar routes, named Polar 1, 2, 3 and 4.[4] Cathay Pacific flew the first polar flight into Siberia in July 1998.

Polar routes are now common on airlines connecting Asian cities (Bangkok, Beijing, Dubai, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo) to North American cities (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C.). Emirates flies nonstop from Dubai to the US West Coast (San Francisco and Los Angeles), coming within a few degrees of latitude of the North Pole.[5]


Few airlines fly between cities having a great circle route over Antarctica. Direct flights between South Africa and New Zealand would overfly Antarctica, but no airline has scheduled such flights. LAN Airlines flies nonstop between Auckland, Sydney and Santiago and Qantas flies nonstop between Sydney and Santiago, the most southerly polar route. Depending on winds, these reach 55 degrees south latitude, but other times 71 degrees, which is enough to cross the polar ice cap.[6]

Depending on the winds, the Qantas flight QF 63/64 from Sydney to Johannesburg sometimes flies over the Antarctic Circle to latitude 71 degrees as well and allowing views of the icecap.[7]

Operational considerations[edit]

The FAA's policy letter Guidance for Polar Operations (March 5, 2001) outlines a number of special requirements for polar flight, which includes two cold-weather suits, special communication capability, designation of arctic diversion airports and firm recovery plans for stranded passengers, and fuel freeze strategy and monitoring requirements.[8]

Jet fuel freeze temperatures range between -40 and -50 °C. These temperatures are frequently encountered at cruise altitude throughout the world with no effect since the fuel retains heat from lower elevations, but the intense cold and extended duration of polar flights may cause fuel temperature to approach its freezing point. Modern long-distance airliners are equipped to alert flight crew when fuel temperatures reach these levels. The crew must then change altitude, though in some cases due to the low stratosphere over polar regions and its inversion properties the air may actually be somewhat warmer at higher altitudes.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Polar Route Operations, Aero, 16, Boeing
  2. ^ For instance, Aviation Week 22 July 1957 p47 reports on "polar routes" from California to Europe granted to Pan Am and TWA.
  3. ^ Study Finds Air Route Over North Pole Feasible for Flights to Asia, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, 10-22-2000. Article retrieved 03-12-09. [1]
  4. ^ Over the Top: Flying the Polar Routes. Avionics Magazine, April 1, 2002. Retrieved 3-07-12. [2]
  5. ^ "Flightaware website". 
  6. ^ "Flightaware website". 
  7. ^ "gotravelyourway". 
  8. ^ Polar Route Operations, Aero, 16, Boeing

External links[edit]