Paul Lewis/Washington DC

The Russian Federation has agreed to a limited opening of the new transpolar and transSiberian routes to scheduled traffic, but is making full and open access conditional upon receiving international assistance to modernise its air traffic management system.

At a recent International Civil Aviation Organisation-chaired steering group meeting in Paris, Russia agreed to a "minimum" implementation of the new routes from July. The move follows two years of trial flights between North America and Asia, demonstrating major time savings.

Russia will open routes Polar-1,-2, -3 and -4, along with Arctica-1 between Europe and Japan, but for only four days a week, 8h a day. Flights will also be limited to two an hour by Russian Far East air traffic control limitations and, in particular, by a shortage of English-speaking controllers.

Full implementation before 2006 hinges on available international funding to upgrade air traffic management systems. As Russia is not a signatory to the international air services transit agreement, foreign carrier access to Siberian airspace is subject to bilateral negotiations. Observers say that Moscow is likely to use this to leverage further concessions for Aeroflot in various markets.

North American carriers have expressed disappointment with the move, suggesting that access will be little better than that now available for demonstrations. Northwest Airlines and United Airlines both fly four or more times a week from Minneapolis and Chicago, respectively, to Hong Kong, using mainly Polar-2 and -3.

An International Air Transport Association official describes the situation as a case of "five steps forward, four back," but, on balance, welcomes the move. Moscow has presented the inter- national community with a shopping list of items it needs to consolidate and modernise its Far East flight information regions.

The aid package has been estimated to cost between $13 million and $50 million. It includes a new intercentre communication infrastructure, and secondary surveillance radars. NavCanada is understood to be looking to extend assistance, while international carriers are discussing providing English language training.

In addition to Northwest and United, Cathay Pacific is looking to the new polar routes to open non-stop services to New York, while Air Canada wants to fly from Toronto to Hong Kong. American Airlines also wants to begin trial flights using a twin-engined Boeing 777-200ER from Chicago to Hong Kong.

Source: Flight International