Study on Polar Flights
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 — A joint Canadian-Russian study has found that opening air traffic routes over the North Pole, currently used by two or three flights a day, to thousands of commercial flights a year is "feasible and desirable."
Aviation experts said the study, to be released on Wednesday, lays the ground work for a huge increase in the number of flights across the pole, and may make practical the first nonstop flights between such far-flung cities as New York and Bangkok or Singapore.
The study found that use of polar routes would shave more than three hours off existing trans-Pacific routes from the East Coast. In some cases, the routes are no shorter but the headwinds disappear, so they are faster.
Opening the routes would require about $33 million of investment in Russia and about $4.2 million in Canada, for air traffic control computers, communications lines within Russia and between that country and the United States, and training of air traffic controllers.
But the money would be recouped through user fees, according to the report. Nav Canada, the privatized Canadian air traffic control authority, already specializes in control of airplanes where there is no radar, notably in the North Atlantic. Nav Canada plans to help the Russians finance their share.
"The north is kind of a last frontier," said Sidney Koslowe, a vice president of Nav Canada, in an interview. "It's as exciting as when the Pacific opened up."
More transpolar flights would also require amending the aviation agreement between the United States and Russia. Such negotiations have been under way for months. The Transportation Department could not say today what their status was.
Routine transpolar flight became possible only after the end of the cold war, when the United States and Russia stopped being so concerned about watching for strategic bombers, and with the development of planes like the Boeing 747-400 and the Airbus A-340, with ranges of about 9,000 nautical miles.
As planes reach the limits of their range, however, capacity to carry weight declines, so making routes shorter increases the amount of passengers and cargo that airlines can carry between cities.
United and Northwest Airlines each fly a handful of times a week between the Midwest and the Far East under a "demonstration program" that saves an hour or so and thousands of dollars on each flight; the program has been extended month to month. Canadian officials said that the only regular flights over the pole now were between North America and Asia.
Other airlines have announced plans for a handful of polar flights. But the air traffic control facilities are so limited now that the system can handle only two or three planes an hour; a more developed system would allow 25 an hour, to handle peak traffic hours.
The study foresees a few dozen flights a day, perhaps 8,000 flights a year within four or five years. That is a far cry from traffic on the North Atlantic, which runs about 1,000 flights a day, but would still constitute a fairly busy corridor.
Navigating over the pole includes odd problems. Compasses are useless, and the geo-stationary satellites that planes in oceanic flight use to relay their position to the ground also become useless, because they hang over the Equator and are not visible from the pole. But the Global Positioning System works, and so does inertial navigation.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it had no objection to new transpolar flights. "We don't have any particular concerns," said Diane Spitaliere, a spokeswoman for the agency. The flights conform to existing rules about how far an airplane is allowed to fly from an airfield where it could land in an emergency.
Much of the route is without civilian radar, although the DEW line, which began operating in the 1950's as a way to spot incoming Soviet bombers, is still in place.
Asked about the usefulness of military radar to transpolar civilian flights, Mr. Koslowe said, "Well, they can watch." He said the system is designed for spotting hostile warplanes, and the equipment for receiving identification codes from passing commercial airplanes probably does not meet civilian reliability standards.
"There's significant interest in this," said George W. Hamlin, an aviation consultant at Global Aviation Associates, which is based here. Routes over the Pacific are sometimes so crowded that airplanes are assigned to fly at altitudes where they burn extra fuel. Currently, he said, "You're trying to force everything through a few pipes, which is costly in terms of fuel burn and could hinder range."
At United Airlines, which flies daily over the pole from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago to Hong Kong, Gene Cameron, the manager of flight dispatch standards and training, said that polar routes made the published schedule for the route — 15 hours and 55 minutes from gate to gate — reliable.
The old route was to fly from Chicago toward Nome and then over Magadan, in the Russian Far East, and took 15 hours and 25 minutes in the air. Now the 747-400 flies over Green Bay, Wis., over the pole, across Lake Baikal and Bratsk in Siberia, then over western Mongolia, for 14 1/2 hours. The scheduled time is 15 hours and 55 minutes, gate to gate, but now, using the polar route, it generally arrives early.
On either route, the plane would take off with a full load of fuel, 57,162 gallons, filling not only the wing tanks but also tanks in the horizontal tail. But it can carry only about 300 passengers in its 368 seats, to be assured of having enough fuel to make the journey. On days when the headwinds at lower latitudes are particularly strong, capacity is sometimes 60 or 70 passengers fewer on the trans-Pacific route.
Northwest finds similar savings in time and growth in carrying capacity on flights over the pole to Shanghai and Beijing, from Detroit.
There is an odd twist to the United flight now, which follows one of four demonstration routes over the area of the pole, depending on winds and factors like which ones are overseen by English-speaking controllers in Russian control centers that day. Most people flying from the Midwest to the Far East would expect to turn westward on leaving Chicago, but using the polar route, the United flight may actually turn east to pick up the path over the North Pole. The plane takes off from Runway 32 Left at O'Hare, which puts it on a course to the north-northwest, and then can turn either east or west.
Copyright 2000--New York Times
Just an FYI--
Northwest deserves more credit on this one than United, as they were the first airline to use the polar route, on the aforementioned DTW-PEK route.
Create your own luck.