A polar route is an aircraft route across the uninhabited polar ice cap regions. The term "polar route" was originally applied to great circle navigation routes between Europe and the west coast of North America in the 1950s.[1]

The Arctic

Early years

In August 1935, the Soviet aviator Sigizmund Levanevsky and his two crewmen attempted a transpolar flight from Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union to San Francisco, California. The flight was aborted because of technical issues before they reached the North Pole.[citation needed]

In 1936, Levanevsky and navigator Victor Levchenko completed a more-than-19,000-kilometre (11,800 mi) multistage flight from Los Angeles to Moscow in a Vultee V-1A floatplane, thus proving the possibility of an air route between the United States and the Soviet Union via the Bering Strait.[citation needed]

Another Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov and his crew were the first to fly non-stop from Europe to the American Pacific Coast. Their flight [ru] from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, United States, via the North Pole on a Tupolev ANT-25 single-engine plane (June 18–20, 1937) took 63 hours to complete. The distance covered was 8,811 kilometres (5,475 mi).[2]

The following month, another Soviet crew led by Mikhail Gromov retraced the transpolar route [ru], extending the distance to the world record-breaking 10,148 kilometers (6,302 miles), landing near San Jacinto, California, in the United States.[citation needed]

In August of the same year, another Soviet crew led by Sigizmund Levanevsky started its long distance transpolar flight from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska; the radio communication with the aircraft broke off beyond the North Pole, and all subsequent search missions failed.[citation needed]

In October 1946, a modified B-29 flew 15,163 kilometres (9,422 mi) nonstop from Oahu, Hawaii, to Cairo, Egypt, in less than 40 hours, further proving the capability of routing airlines over the polar icecap.[3]

The Cold War

Of the commercial airlines, SAS was first: their Douglas DC-6B flights between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, via Kangerlussuaq and Winnipeg, started on November 15, 1954.[4] Canadian Pacific DC-6Bs started VancouverAmsterdam 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 Douglas DC-7Cs in February 1957; Air France Lockheed L-1649 Starliner (which was the final version of the Lockheed Constellation) and KLM DC-7C aircraft followed in 1958.[5] Air France was the first to operate commercial jet service over the North Pole on the routing Tokyo – Anchorage – Hamburg – Paris on 18 February 1960 using Boeing 707-328 Intercontinental equipment. Based on delivery dates of Air France's 707s, the actual aircraft used for this historic flight was one of these four registrations: F-BHSA, F-BHSB, F-BHSC or F-BHSD.[citation needed]

During 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 prohibited from crossing the Eastern Bloc countries, Soviet Union or China[citation needed], and either had to fly via the Middle East or fly across Arctic North America and Greenland with a refueling stop in Anchorage. These Cold War tracks extended from the northern Alaskan coast across Greenland to Europe. In 1978, Korean Air Lines Flight 902 operated with a Boeing 707 was shot down over the USSR by a Soviet Air Force fighter aircraft after the flight crew made gross navigational errors attempting to fly the assigned polar route.[citation needed]

In April 1967 Japan Air Lines (JAL) began an experimental service between Tokyo and Europe via Moscow across Siberia. This service used an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-114, with one JAL flight crew and mixed JAL and Aeroflot cabin crew. However, Japan Air Lines dropped the service in 1969.[citation needed]

During the Cold War, Anchorage International Airport (ANC) in Alaska was a technical stop for a number of airlines flying the polar route between western Europe and Tokyo. According to the July 1, 1983 edition of the Worldwide Official Airline Guide (OAG), Air France, British Airways, Japan Air Lines (JAL), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Lufthansa, Sabena and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) were all operating flights between Japan and western Europe which included a stop in Anchorage.[6] Most of these international airlines were operating earlier model Boeing 747 aircraft on the route at this time, although Sabena and SAS were instead operating McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 aircraft on their respective polar route services via Anchorage. U.S. based air carrier Western Airlines also flew a polar route during the early 1980s between London Gatwick Airport and Honolulu using DC-10-30 aircraft, with these flights also making a stop in Anchorage.[7]

The only airline that still flies this type of route between Europe and Anchorage is Condor Airlines, seasonal service between Frankfurt (EDDF) and Anchorage.[8] This will soon be joined by a flight by Eurowings, also from Frankfurt, using an Airbus A330.[needs update]

Finnair was the first airline to fly non-stop via the polar route without a technical stop. This service began in 1983 and was flown with a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30ER wide body jetliner between Tokyo and Helsinki.[9][10]

United States Boeing B-52 aircraft operated in the Arctic Ocean region almost continuously in the 1960s as part of Operation Chrome Dome and in later decades as part of readiness exercises. A number of Western reconnaissance aircraft also conducted missions regularly along the Soviet Union's northern coast. Russian Long-Range Aviation now perform some of the same types of training flights, testing the readiness of Alaskan Command and Royal Canadian Air Force interceptors.[11]

After the Cold War

Immediately after the Cold War, a number of direct southern routes had opened up between Europe and Asia over the Black Sea and southern former Soviet republics across Afghanistan, and by the mid-1990s, over China. In Russia's eastern and Arctic regions there were significant problems with lack of English-speaking controllers, lack of radio facilities, poor radar coverage, poor ATC capacity, and a lack of funds. To solve these issues, RACGAT (Russian-American Coordinating Group for Air Traffic) was formed in 1993. By summer 1998, the Russian government worked through these problems and gave permission to open four cross-polar routes, named Polar 1, 2, 3 and 4.[12] Additional routes were opened in subsequent years.

Cathay Pacific Flight 889 from New York John F. Kennedy International Airport, piloted by Captain Paul Horsting on 7 July 1998—the first arrival to the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok west of Hong Kong—appears to be the first non-stop flight over the Arctic polar region and over Russian airspace. It was the world's first nonstop transpolar flight from New York to Hong Kong, dubbed Polar One. It took 16 hours to complete, and it was and still is one of the longest flights that Cathay Pacific operates.[13]

Current flight operations

The American Federal Aviation Administration now defines the North Polar area of operations as the area north of 78° north latitude,[14] which is north of Alaska and most of Siberia.

Aircraft like the Boeing 747-400, 747-8, 777-200ER, 777-200LR, 777-300ER, 787-8, 787-9, and 787-10, as well as the Airbus A340, A350, and A380, with ranges of around 13,000 kilometres (8,100 mi; 7,000 nmi) or more, are required in order to travel the long distances nonstop between suitable airports.[15]

Arctic polar routes are now common on airlines connecting Asian cities to North American cities. Emirates and Qatar Airways fly nonstop from Dubai and Doha to the US West Coast (San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles), coming within a few degrees of latitude of the North Pole.[16][17][18] Air India's non-stop flight, AI-173, between New Delhi (DEL) and San Francisco (SFO), usually flies over the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean; but on August 15, 2019, it instead flew over the North Pole.[19]

In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to countries such as the UK [20] and the US,[21] as well as the entire EU[22] to ban Russian airlines from entering their airspace. This has led to airlines avoiding Russian airspace when flying to certain destinations, including Eastern Asian cities from the US and Europe and vice versa.[23][24] One instance includes Japan Airlines, whose London-Tokyo route now flies over Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, and Alaska. While this route uses a Boeing 777, which can cover the route without refueling, its flight time increased by an additional four hours because of the longer new route.[25] The airspace bans also forced cargo airlines to change their course, with some changing their polar routes.[26][27]


Few airlines fly between cities having a great circle route over Antarctica. Hypothetically, flights between South Africa and New Zealand, or between Perth, Australia, and certain destinations in South America (including Buenos Aires and São Paulo), would overfly Antarctica, but no airline has scheduled such flights.

Flights between Australia and South America and between Australia and South Africa pass near the Antarctic coastline. Depending on the winds, the Qantas flight QFA63 from Sydney to Johannesburg – O. R. Tambo, or the return flight QFA64, sometimes flies over the Antarctic Circle to 71° latitude as well and allowing views of the icecap.[28][better source needed] Qantas QFA27 and QFA28 fly nonstop between Sydney and Santiago de Chile, the most southerly polar route. Depending on winds, this flight may reach 55° south latitude. From July 2012[29] until 2014, Aerolíneas Argentinas flew nonstop between Sydney and Buenos Aires[30][better source needed] Previously, Qantas also operated QFA17 and QFA18 between Sydney and Buenos Aires. Nowadays, LATAM operates LAN804 and LAN805 between Melbourne, Australia, and Santiago, Chile, and Air New Zealand operates ANZ30 and ANZ31 between Auckland and Buenos Aires all with similarly south-running routes.[citation needed]

The polar route across the remote southern Pacific Ocean between South America and Oceania was pioneered by Lan Chile, with a special flight from Santiago to Sydney on a 707 in 1974, with a stop in Punta Arenas (Chile). Commercial flights begun with Aerolíneas Argentinas, with service between Buenos Aires via Rio Gallegos to Auckland in the 1980s with a Boeing 747-200 aircraft. Aerolíneas Argentinas later operated to Sydney via Auckland, but ended its flights to New Zealand and Australia in 2014.[31]

Previously, because of ETOPS limitations on twin-engined aircraft — the maximum distance the aircraft can operate from an airport for emergency landings — only four-engined aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Airbus A340, and Airbus A380 could operate routes near Antarctica. Twin-engined aircraft had to fly further north, closer to potential diversion airports; for example, when Virgin Australia operated their VA 15 and VA 16 flights between Melbourne and Johannesburg on twin-engined Boeing 777 aircraft with a 180-minute ETOPS rating, the flight was two hours longer than a Qantas flight from Sydney to Johannesburg.[32] In 2015, government regulators approved Air New Zealand's twin-engined Boeing 777-200ER aircraft for a 330-minute ETOPS rating (i.e. its 777 aircraft can fly a maximum 330 minutes away from the nearest diversion airport), an increase from its previous 240-minute ETOPS rating, to operate their new route between Auckland and Buenos Aires-Ezeiza which ended in 2020.[33] LATAM Airlines began their LAN800 and LAN801 nonstop flights between Santiago de Chile and Sydney via Auckland in April 2015 with twin-engined Boeing 787 aircraft with a 330-minute ETOPS rating.[34][35] LATAM has announced a nonstop flight between Santiago de Chile and Melbourne (LAN804/LAN805) to begin in October 2017.[36][37] In late 2019, LATAM began direct flights between Santiago and Sydney (LA802/LAN803) competing with the existing Qantas (QFA27/QFA28) flights on the same route.

The southernmost flight route with plausible airports would be between Buenos Aires and Perth.[38] With a 175° (S) heading, the route's great circle exceeds 85° S and would be within 500 kilometres (310 mi) of the South Pole. Currently, no commercial airline operates this 12,600-kilometre (7,800 mi; 6,800 nmi) route. However, in February, 2018, it was stated that Norwegian Air Argentina is considering this "less than 15 hours" trans-polar flight between South America and Asia, with a stop-over in Perth en route to Singapore.[39] They will not fly over the South Pole, but around Antarctica taking advantage of the strong winds which circle that continent in an easterly direction. Hence, the "westbound" flight from Buenos Aires would actually travel south-east south of Cape Town, over the southern Indian Ocean and on to Perth, while the true "eastbound" flight would also head south-east south of Tasmania and New Zealand, over the South Pacific and on to South America. If this route becomes operational, a Buenos Aires – Singapore return flight would possibly be the fastest circumnavigation available with commercial airliners, although Perth – Buenos Aires return would be faster but without passing the Equator.[citation needed]

Operational considerations

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.[14]

Jet fuel freeze temperatures range between −40 and −50 °C (−40 and −58 °F). 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. Jet A grade with a maximum freeze point of −40 °C (−40 °F) is used in the U.S., while Jet A1 grade with a maximum freeze point of −47 °C (−53 °F) is used elsewhere.[40] Modern long-distance airliners are equipped to alert flight crew when fuel temperatures reach 3 °C (5.4 °F) above 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.[14]

The alerts are typically set at 3 °C (5.4 °F) above the specified maximum freeze point. This provides a 3 °C (5.4 °F) safety margin from the solidification temperature. However, fuels produced at the refineries are often better than the spec values; for example, it is not uncommon to find Jet A fuels that have measured freeze point better (colder) than the specified maximum of −40 °C (−40 °F). In that way, the safety margin is even larger than 3 °C (5.4 °F). On the other hand, the temperature probe that delivers fuel temperature information to the flight deck is not located in the coldest part of the fuel tanks. The difference between the recorded and the coldest fuel temperature varies depending on a variety of factors, especially the circulation of fuel in the tanks and duration of cold soak. It is, therefore, prudent to have a safety margin.[citation needed]

For polar flights, FAA allows,[41] under certain conditions, the measured freeze point be used instead of assuming the spec value in ASTM D1655. This gives the airlines more flexibility in flight planning.

See also


  1. ^ For instance, Aviation Week 22 July 1957 p47 reports on "polar routes" from California to Europe granted to Pan Am and TWA.
  2. ^ McCannon, John (1998). Red Arctic : Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 1932–1939. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-19-535420-1.
  3. ^ "Inside The Dreamboat." Popular Science, December 1946 interview with crew about planning for flight.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-08-21. Retrieved 2015-03-05.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ "To Tokyo with a DC-7 over the North Pole". KLM Blog. 23 November 2014.
  6. ^ http://www.departedflights.com, July 1, 1983 Worldwide Official Airline Guide (OAG), Tokyo-Anchorage flight schedules
  7. ^ http://www.departedflights.com, March 1, 1981 Western Airlines system timetable
  8. ^ "StackPath (12 August 2020)". www.aviationpros.com (Press release). Retrieved 21 August 2020.
  9. ^ http://www.departedflights.com, July 1, 1983 Worldwide Official Airline Guide (OAG), Tokyo-Helsinki flight schedules
  10. ^ Huhtanen, Ann-Mari (7 September 2014). "Perhana, se tulee suoraan kohti. Jouluna 1987 Finnairin lento AY 915 oli matkalla Tokiosta Helsinkiin, kun Huippuvuorten kohdalla konetta lähestyi ohjus" [‘Damn it, it's coming straight at us. At Christmas, 1987, Finnair flight AY 915 was en route from Tokyo to Helsinki, when a missile approached it over Svalbard’]. Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). Sanoma: C 6–8. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
  11. ^ Russian military planes approach Alaska for 4th straight night, Anchorage Daily News, Published April 21, 2017.
  12. ^ Over the Top: Flying the Polar Routes. Avionics Magazine, April 1, 2002. Retrieved 3-07-12. [1]
  13. ^ "Cathay Pacific's non-stop New York flight 'strengthens Hong Kong's hub'" (Press release). Cathay Pacific. 11 June 2004. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 5 July 2009.
  14. ^ a b c "Aero 16 - Polar Route Operations". Arlington, VA: Boeing.
  15. ^ 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. [2]
  16. ^ "Flightaware website".
  17. ^ "QR737 (QTR737) Qatar Airways Flight Tracking and History". FlightAware. Retrieved 2022-03-12.
  18. ^ "Schedule search". Air India. Tata Group. Retrieved 12 April 2015.
  19. ^ "Air India becomes first Indian airline to fly over North Pole". The Times of India. Mumbai. Retrieved 2019-08-16.
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  23. ^ Cox, John (1 March 2022). "How will Russia-Ukraine conflict affect air travel? Longer flights, higher fuel costs, fewer planes". USA Today. Gannett.
  24. ^ Rains, Taylor (12 March 2022). "Creative routings to avoid Russian and EU airspace closures are adding up to 4 hours of extra flight time on some plane journeys across the globe". Business Insider. Retrieved 12 March 2022.
  25. ^ Calder, Simon (7 March 2022). "Polar Route to Japan is Back as Japan Airlines Avoids Russian Airspace". The Independent. Retrieved 12 March 2022.
  26. ^ Cherney, Mike; Katz, Benjamin; Cameron, Doug (2 March 2022). "Airlines Scramble for Routes Around Russia as Flight Bans Intensify". The Wall Street Journal.
  27. ^ Passy, Jacob (4 March 2022). "Russia's war in Ukraine has closed airspace — and disrupted air-cargo transportation". MarketWatch.
  28. ^ "gotravelyourway". 10 January 2018.
  29. ^ Aerolíneas Argentinas unirá Buenos Aires-Sydney sin escalas
  30. ^ "Flightaware website".
  31. ^ Chui, Sam (21 March 2014). "Aerolineas Argentinas Transpolar Flight "Vuelo Transpolar" Sydney – Buenos Aires". Sam Chui Aviation & Travel. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  32. ^ Freed, Jamie (1 October 2014). "Virgin Australia brings back direct flights to Johannesburg through South African Airways codeshare". The Border Mail. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  33. ^ Carey, Bill (2 December 2015). "Air New Zealand 777 Makes First 330-Minute ETOPS Flight". AINonline. The Convention News Company, Inc. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  34. ^ Leaman, Aaron (31 July 2016). "Flight test: Auckland to Santiago on LATAM's Boeing 787-9". Stuff. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  35. ^ Clark, Peter (22 April 2015). "PICTURE: LAN avails of 787 ETOPS certification". Flight Global. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  36. ^ "LATAM to serve Melbourne-Santiago nonstop from October 2017". Australian Aviation. 5 December 2016. Archived from the original on 21 March 2017. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
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  40. ^ [ASTM specification D1655]
  41. ^ Federal Aviation Administration, US Department of Transportation (June 13, 2008), Extended Operations (ETOPS and Polar Operations) (PDF), AC 120-42B, archived from the original (PDF) on June 16, 2013