Is It Safe To Fly Over The North Pole?

As we know, due to the fact that Russian airspace is off-limits for many airlines, they are having to come up with new ways of going to areas in the Far East or Southeast Asia. Finnair, since the 9th of March, has been flying over the North Pole from Helsinki to Tokyo.

Other airlines like Emirates also follow an arctic route by flying close to the North Pole. Emirates flies nonstop from Dubai to the American West Coast (to the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco). Japan Airlines is also now flying a Polar route from London to Tokyo. The journey, which formerly took over 11 hours from London to Tokyo, is now taking over 15 hours via Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.

Finnair has chosen to fly over the North Pole despite having an alternative route over other countries formerly but of the Soviet Union but are now independent sovereign nations. This means that even though Russia’s airspace is off-limits, it is safe to fly over these countries. So what made Finnair choose a route over the North Pole? And What are the dangers?

How did Finnair come up with a North Pole Route?

Finnair managed to redesign its route from Finland to Japan in just over a week. This was achieved as Finnair, as with many other major airlines, has its own computerised flight planning system. As stated by Riku Kohwakka, Manager of Flight Planning at Finnair to CNN Travel, this system can be used to plan and change routes.

In the software, the airspace of specific countries can be crossed out, and certain coordinates can be put in manually in order to guide the system to create a preferred route. This synergy of human and computer interaction means that the computerised software can come up with an agreeable route and do so relatively quickly. For Finnair there was also an alternative route through former Soviet states; however this is longer.

Finnair is coming to Seattle. @ Anujan Anton Jerad/Travel Radar
Finnair redesigned its route to Japan in just over a week © Anton Jerad/Travel Radar

Afterwards, the cost of the flight is deduced using fuel consumption data and navigation fees (those that are payable for flying through the airspace of another country in return for navigation aids and support landing at their airports). Afterwards, as stated by Kohwakka, flight planners need to check the kind of terrain that they are flying over. For example, if there is elevation at any point that requires special planning in case an engine is lost, or there are issues with pressurisation, which is something that always needs to be considered when planning a flight.

How Safe is it?

Once a new route is approved, the focus shifts to aircraft equipment and associated processes and regulations. One of these standards is ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards). ETOPS was a system of certification of airlines that started in the 1950s when airplane engines were less dependable and more likely to fail.

It is given to an aircraft and states the maximum flight time a plane with only two engines can be from the nearest airport at any time during a flight in case of engine failure and the need for an emergency landing.

Finnair is adding Premium Economy class. @ Anujan Anton Jerad/Travel Radar
Finnair already has experience of flying via the North Pole ©  Anujan Anton Jerad/Travel Radar

In the 1950s, the limit was initially set to 1 hour. However, as planes became more dependable, the limit was increased.

More recently, Finnair was operating under the ETOPS 180 rule whereby a plane could be a maximum of 3 hours away from the nearest airport at any time during its flight. In the Arctic route now taken by Finnair, however, the three-hour limit was no longer sufficient as airports are more remote in that region. As a result, Finnair applied for and received an extension of the certification to 5 hours.

As one can see, airlines are having to adapt to changing political situations and are using people as well as technology to overcome obstacles.

With regards to the safety issue in relation to the Arctic route taken by Finnair, however, it appears that the authorities have approved a route that is more arduous than the other longer alternative through the former Soviet Republics. In 1983 however, when Finnair began operations to Tokyo during the Cold War, it also flew at that time over the North Pole. Because of this, as Finnair has experience flying via the Arctic and the North Pole, it should provide a viable alternative for the flight operator and its customers.

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Amuthan Chandrarajan
Amuthan Chandrarajan
Aviation Reporter - Amuthan has a background in residential and commercial real estate. He also has a keen interest in aviation and travel and has visited many countries. Amuthan has a sound knowledge of business and finance.  He has gained a Master of Business Administration and has become a Chartered Management Accountant. 


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