David Learmount/HONG KONG

China is to make flight clearance through its airspace simpler, which could revolutionise the relatively rare use of high Arctic routes between Europe or America and Asia.

The new rules, expected to come into effect on 30 June, will give airlines operational flexibility which could mean the difference between profit and loss on new polar routes.

Speaking on Cathay Pacific's first commercial Canada-Hong Kong non-stop service via the North Pole, the International Air Transport Association's assistant director of infrastructure, David Behrens, explained that China requires 15 days' notice of which routeing and entry point into China every flight will choose. Under the new rules the flight plan can be filed on the day.

The existing rule prevents airlines from using upper wind patterns to determine the best of four possible routeings for the day. Planning 15 days in advance forces carriers to use seasonal wind averages to choose a routeing and, because this can mean that a non-optimum route is flown, it makes a significant difference to the payload that the airline can plan for.

Behrens emphasises that China's stance on this point "literally decides whether these [polar] routes will be used at all".

Cathay's Toronto-Hong Kong flight on 18 May via the Polar 2 route - the closest of all the North America-Asia routes to the North Pole, passing it within 80km (45nm) - was flown by an Airbus A340-300 carrying 134 passengers, 16 crew and 2.5t of freight.

The time taken for the 12,565km Toronto-Hong Kong flight was 15h 17min, a saving of 3h on the one-stop service via Anchorage, Alaska, Cathay's normal routeing from Canada, which uses about 30t more fuel.

This flight, which was the first polar flight out of Canada, used its inertial reference system as the primary means of polar navigation, updated by the global positioning system.

Routeing was out of Toronto via Hudson Bay, the Pole, entering Russia at its northern-most point, then over eastern Siberia, Mongolia and China.

Source: Flight International