MARCH 25, 2001


The Straits Times, Singapore
More Airlines going West to East via the North

Major airlines are using the new Polar route to fly between North America and Asia. It reduces travel time substantially and helps cut costs

By R. Senthilnathan

ONE by one, the world's major airlines are beginning to use a new civil aviation route via the North Pole to reduce flight time between North America and Asia by as much as four hours.

In the process, they will be saving money and the environment.

US giant Continental Airlines was the latest to start a non-stop flight using the Polar route when it launched its New York-Hongkong flight on March 1.

In October, Air Canada proposes to launch the first non-stop flight between the North American continent and the Indian subcontinent.

At present, airlines flying from North America and Europe to Asia and vice-versa use either the longer continental European or the North Pacific routes with at least one stop-over before reaching their final destination.

Air Canada officials said the proposed four-times-a-week Vancouver-New Delhi flight over the North Pole will cut travel time by as much as four hours under ideal weather conditions.

Currently the flight takes about 18 hours.

A spokesman for Continental said that the New York-Hongkong flight saves between two and eight hours, depending on the weather conditions.

The savings in flight time and lower cost per flight make the Polar route attractive even though it lies along some of the most hostile terrain on the Arctic and Siberian territories.

But concerns about the difficulties of conducting search and rescue operations and problems of finding alternative airports for the aircraft to land in emergencies have kept proposals at bay.

Russia's announcement last month declaring the airspace over its territory - over which most of the Polar air route runs - open to commercial flights has helped significantly, say airline officials.

Test flights began in 1998 and since then almost 500 such flights have undergone the exercise.

'The airlines are very satisfied about the results,' said Mr Denis Chagnon, a senior communications officer at the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The ICAO is a UN body entrusted with the task of promoting safe and orderly development of civil aviation, which formally endorsed the Polar routes earlier this year.

The implementation of the Polar routes could not have come at a better time.

According to the ICAO and other organisations, the number of air travellers worldwide is expected to reach 2.5 billion by year 2010, an increase of 67 per cent over the 1.5 billion people who travelled by air in 1997.

Russian officials say that at present only two flights per hour could be accommodated on the new route.

The North Pacific route, on the other hand, handles up to 1,000 flights daily.

Hours shaved from flights

A FEASIBILITY study on taking the new civil aviation route via the North Pole showed that it could result in twin benefits of saving on time and expenses.

A trip from New York to Singapore through the Polar route would be shorter by almost three-and-a-half hours.

The savings on cost would be around US$44,000 (S$78,800).

The study also identified 33 potential city pairs that could benefit from these routes.

These include North American cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Toronto and Vancouver and major Asian cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul and New Delhi.

The study was done by NavCanada, the Canadian civil air navigation service and its Russian counterpart, the Federal Aviation Authority of Russia.

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