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Polar pathways

The increasing use of routes over the North Pole raises the issue of alternate airfields in this region, particularly throughout Siberia. Several US carriers, as well as Air Canada and Air China, have taking advantage of the routes since 2001. Many are flown with the Boeing 777 under extended-range twin engine operations (ETOPS) rules. The routes can decrease flight times by up to two hours, increase payload and reserve fuel capacity, and open new city pairs for non-stop services.

"The Polar region is one of the last areas where you will see significant new routes opening," says David Behrens, of the International Air Transport Association. "There is not that much traffic today, but this will change. Airlines are waiting for the next generation of long-range aircraft."

The Russian airports designated as alternates share some of the funding issues of their Pacific cousins, but have the added challenge of dealing with the Siberian climate. A critical requirement is ensuring passengers have shelter at the airfield. Carriers must have a recovery plan to ensure passenger safety until they can be flown to a normal commercial airport.

At present, the airports of Anadyr, Arkhangel, Kogalym, Magadan, Murmansk, Yakutsk and Raduzhny are already available for polar route alternates, and the International Air Transport Association lists a further nine as "highly desirable". As most of these already have some form of domestic operation there is little need for major upgrades to runways or navigation aids. However, as they are not international gateways they do not have immigration services. "These airports are more than willing to make that move, but it comes back to the same issue of who pays for it," says Behrens.

Talks between the airlines and the Russian authorities have taken place on this issue without any resolution. "I think more than anything people are waiting for demand to increase, then a solution will be found," says Behrens. So far there has not been a diversion related to any of the Polar services.

The airport of Longyearbyen on the Spitzbergen islands to the north of Norway has been approached by Airbus and Boeing to provide a diversion service, this time for polar routes between Asia and Europe, says Ole Rambech, airport director. However, although the airport has regular Boeing 737 services from Norwegian carrier Braathens, its runway is not wide enough to cope with larger twinjets.

Funding is again a challenge. "It is difficult to see how the income from being an alternate will compensate for the investment needed," says Rambech. Even so, Avinor, the Norwegian airports and air traffic control operator, is considering a runway upgrade at Longyearbyen and a contribution towards this cost was discussed with aircraft manufacturers, he says.

For these little-used airfields, such considerations are essential if they are to become alternates. But airlines and the aircraft manufacturers are reluctant to become too deeply involved in their funding, often arguing that the state should take greater responsibility to ensure these airfields are available.

It is a funding puzzle that will likely have to be addressed on a local and individual airport basis. With routes over other remote regions opening up, the funding models that are constructed at today's cash-strapped alternates will be closely scrutinised as airports seek a financial helping hand.