North American carriers are being forced to shelve plans for new non-stop direct services between US and Asian destinations as infrastructural and political problems delay the opening of transpolar routes .

Trial flights over the North Pole have stopped only 12 months after the inaugural transpolar test flight by a Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747-400 between New York and Hong Kong. No more flights are scheduled this year.

United Airlines has abandoned plans to launch a scheduled service between Chicago and New Delhi from late October, partially as a result of delays in opening the Polar One route (Flight International, 14-20 April). Northwest Airlines has been unable to open a daily non-stop service between Beijing and Detroit, while Delta and American Airlines plans have similarly been frustrated.

While in many individual cases other factors have also played a role, such as crewing issues or air services agreements, the biggest single hurdle common to all potential users is the lack of viable routes. "Airlines cannot achieve anything like an economic traffic flow because of institutional problems," says an International Air Transport Association (IATA) official.

The biggest problem is the shortage of agreed entry points between China, Mongolia and Russia. Polar Two's Yabrai and Polar Four's Magdagachi crossing points are still not open and traffic has to either divert to Polar One's Gopto or Polar Three's Intok gateways. An airspace demarcation dispute between Russia and Europe has also kept the Avery entry point to Polar One shut.

Airlines are not being given the latitude by Russian officials to choose or change to the optimum routing or entry point according to daily prevailing winds without giving several weeks' notice. "When you are flying 7,000-8,000nm [13,000-14,800km], you cannot afford not to have flexibility," says a US airline traffic planner.

Another problem is the lack of voice communications for traffic handover between US Alaskan controllers and their Russian counterparts, particularly at the Tiksi centre on Polar Three. IATA and the airlines hope to have this issue addressed at the next Russia/ America Co-ordinating Group (RACGAT) meeting scheduled to take place at Irkutsk on 17 August.

Resolution of the Avery issue is also on the agenda, but the crucial matter of more Chinese crossing points looks certain to take longer to resolve. "Chinese officials like to attend RACGAT meetings in the USA, but rarely show up in deepest Russia," says a US official.

Source: Flight International