The polar express

btlogo1That flight you’re catching to China? It might be headed straight over the North Pole.

To meet the needs of business travelers looking for quicker ways to reach fast- growing economies in Asia and the Middle East, airlines are routing an increasing number of their flights north over the Arctic Circle, utilizing what are known in the industry as polar routes.

“These routes get customers to their destination sooner and on a smoother flight path,” says Gary Edwards, director of flight control at Delta Air Lines. “They’re an efficient way to reduce fuel burn and save flight time compared to flying traditional routes.”

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) defines the North Pole area of operations as the area that lies north of 78 degrees
North latitude, and a polar route is one that traverses some portion of this region. “A more general definition would be any route that goes north of the Arctic Circle,” says Karl Swartz, creator and president of the Great Circle Mapper, a Web site that tracks airline routings.

Looping over the pole often offers the fastest trip between far-flung city pairs, which is why some airlines have been flying polar routes for over 40 years. In 1954, SAS Scandinavian Airlines launched polar service from Copenhagen to Los Angeles via Greenland, and three years later, began flights from Copenhagen to Tokyo via Anchorage. But polar flights really took off in the late 1990s, after Russia allowed access to previously untraveled airspace, and last year, commercial airlines flew over 8,000 cross-polar flights.

“These shorter, more efficient routes allow us to offer more nonstop service,” says Joe Kolshak, senior vice president of operations at United Airlines, which completed its 10,000th polar crossing this year. “And they significantly reduce flight times,” he adds.

“Prior to opening polar routes, carriers would make technical stops in places like Anchorage,” says Mitch Dubner, senior director of systems operations for Continental Airlines. “[But with polar routings] the savings in time can be as much as two hours depending upon the winds.”

And reduced flight time means lower fuel consumption and fewer emissions. Bob Everest, vice president of flight operation services at Emirates, says polar routing on its San Francisco-Dubai flight saves approximately 2,000 gallons of fuel and 40,000 pounds of carbon emissions in each direction. “We worked closely with government agencies in Dubai, Iceland, Russia, Canada, the United States and other countries to plot the most environmentally-conscientious route possible,” he says.

Airlines that fly polar routes must consider a unique set of issues. Emergency airports must be identified and made available for planes traveling over long stretches of uninhabited territory, and aircraft must be equipped with navigation systems that will function properly at high latitudes. “Think of a magnetic compass directly over the North Pole,” Swartz says. “North is toward your feet, and every other direction is south!”

Solar radiation must also be monitored. “Commercial jet flights that reach cruise altitude expose occupants to higher levels of radiation than sitting on the ground,” Swartz notes. “But polar flights are worse.” It’s an issue that the airlines handle proactively. “Solar flare activity on polar routes can disrupt communication between the aircraft and air traffic control,” says Continental’s Dubner. “But forecasts from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) allow us to use alternative routes during solar eruptions.”

The time savings and fuel efficiency that come with polar flights make them popular with customers, which is why airlines operate most of them from hub airports that offer extensive domestic and international connections. To attract and retain crucial business travelers, carriers make sure that their top-level amenities and services–everything from showers and meal service to spas and arrival lounges–are available at these gateway airports.

“Because air is less turbulent in the Arctic, polar flights are generally quite smooth,” says United spokesperson Sarah Massier. “We want things to be just as comfortable on the ground.”

This entry was posted in Articles, aviation + transportation, business traveler, Topics. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.