The International Air Transport Association's (IATA) Asia-Pacific technical office and airline regional co-ordinating group (RCG) has enjoyed a busy three years. Having negotiated safe passage over Afghanistan and helped broker the opening of North Korean airspace, the group scored again with the initial transpolar route-proving flight.

RCG chairman and Cathay Pacific Airways international operations manager Paul Horsting recalls that the idea was first broached around the end of 1994 "-when we were looking at the Polar map and thinking, if we can get the Russians to open their airspace, surely we can go straight over the pole and open up non-stop flights between Hong Kong and New York".

The RCG quickly enlisted the support of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) for a feasibility study. A dialogue was opened with Russia through a bilateral working-level forum, the Russia/America Co-ordinating Group for Air Traffic (RACGAT).

For Russia's post-Cold War authorities, struggling to scrape together enough roubles to modernise an outdated air traffic control network, the prospect of increased overflight revenue proved a strong lure. President Boris Yeltsin accordingly issued an executive order to open up the country's once militarily sensitive polar airspace to commercial air traffic.


The benefits of "going over the top" are twofold. The more direct polar routings, coupled with improved aircraft performance, will produce huge savings in distance and time over existing North Pacific (NOPAC) routes and, for the first time, make it commercially viable to operate non-stop services between Asia and the US interior and East Coast.

Russia's light and variable winds will also offer westbound winter traffic a respite from the notorious NOPAC headwinds, which can reach 150-200kt (280-370km/h). "It's more than just straightening out lines, it's getting out of the winds from North America to Asia that's a major consideration," says David Behrens, FAA Air Traffic Services international programme officer.

Another major benefit is relieving growing traffic congestion on the NOPAC arterial network. North Pacific traffic has been expanding by an average of around 13% annually since 1995, topping over 60,000 flights in the last year. As a measure of demand for new airspace, traffic on the more northerly of the new Russian Far East routes, such as G212, A218 and G583, grew by 70% in 1997.

"They've gone from 20 flights a day to 100 and it's growing to the point where infrastructure must be improved. The new airports of Chek Lap Kok [Hong Kong] and Inchon [South Korea] are only going to create more traffic. Without making aircraft fly lower, where they burn more fuel, we're going to be saturated," warns Behrens.

As the result of a series of 1997 RACGAT meetings, four proposed polar routes from North America were mapped out. Polar One will link with the Indian subcontinent, Polar Two is intended to serve South-East Asia, while Polar Three and Four are designed to connect to Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and other destinations in north-east Asia.

The routes will follow fixed tracks through Russian airspace to the longitude 168.58°W boundary line with North America, after which flexible tracking will be permitted. Polar Three and Four come the closest to the optimum great-circle route between Tokyo and New York and, in terms of favourable winds and potentially lucrative new city-pairs, are the most promising of the four planned routes.

In response to a Russian approach to IATA for airlines to begin conducting trials, Cathay, at a mini-RACGAT meeting in February, announced its intention to stage the first demonstration flight non-stop from New York to Hong Hong over the North Pole on 5-6 July. The move represented a bold move for an airline caught in the grip of a major traffic and earnings downturn and on the eve of its move from Kai Tak to the new Chek Lap Kok.

Cathay's appropriately named Polar One flight in the end not only broke the record for the longest commercial flight ever, covering the 14,103km (7,575nm) distance in 15h 35min, but stole line honours as the first flight to land at Chek Lap Kok early on 6 July (Flight International, 15-21 July, P8). "Everyone had doubts about its feasibility, but we've proven it can be done and opened up a brand new area of airspace," proclaims Horsting, who commanded the Boeing 747-400 flight.

The departure of Polar One was preceded some 24h earlier by a Transaero Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 charter flight from Moscow to Toronto over the North Pole. The flight, carrying Krasnoyarsk governor and Russian presidential hopeful Alexander Lebed, was viewed as having as much to do with political showmanship as route proving. With much of the world's media encamped at Hong Kong's new airport, it attracted little publicity.

The two flights served as a practical demonstration that commercial passenger aircraft can pass safely over the North Pole without any adverse effect on inertial navigation systems or flight management computers, which simply performed a 180¼ volte face at latitude 90°N. "We gained some technical experience operating over the Arctic," says Victor Galkin, Federal Aviation Authority of Russia first deputy director, who participated in both flights.

When fully operational, none of the four polar routes will actually pass over the North Pole, which is described as an air traffic control "no man's land". To ensure proper co-ordination and lines of demarcation between bordering Canadian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Russian and US area control centres (ACCs), Polar Two is routed no closer than latitude 89¼N, or some 110km from the North Pole.

Flights over the polar region are further complicated by the absence of satellite communication coverage, with the Inmarsat constellation ineffective above latitude 79¼N. To overcome this communications blackspot, Cathay, with ARINC, successfully tested the use of a high frequency datalink (HFDL) to relay Polar One position reports to Russian controllers in Norilsk and Tiksi.

While HF voice reliability has been widely criticised in the past, HFDL has been shown to be a workable system using the aircraft's existing airborne communications addressing and reporting datalink. It is hoped to supplement the HF medium with the new Iridium low-orbit satellite constellation, which will provide full polar satellite communications (satcom) coverage. Cathay hopes to conduct its first Iridium satcom trials in 1999.


The longer-term intention is to move fully to the new communications, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) system. Full satcom and global positioning system coverage of the pole will clear the way to using controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) and automatic dependence surveillance (ADS).

"HF has proved quite good on this flight [Polar One]. However, we would definitely prefer to see CPDLC/ADS put in place," states International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regional director Lalit Shah. "What we're trying to do is have one route for use by aircraft equipped for CNS/ATM and, as an alternative, have a route for non-equipped aircraft. Routes should not be designed to be limited to one type of aircraft," he adds.

Boeing's Future Air Navigation System (FANS-1) avionics suite is already in widespread use with Asian 747-400 operators, while the equivalent Airbus Industrie FANS-A has been ordered by A340 users such as Singapore Airlines (SIA). The situation on the ground with Russia's numerous en route ACCs such as Norilsk, Tiksi and Yakutsk is a little less clear and will remain so until Russia can gauge the international response to forthcoming polar flight trials.

Galkin explains: "The primary objective of the trials is to test the readiness of our ACCs and define the degree to which we can use conventional ATC capabilities. The secondary objective is to evaluate the potential use of these routes. If there are enough, we'll think about ATC improvements and perhaps certain CNS/ATM elements, but it's an expensive undertaking."

User trials had been scheduled to begin from mid-July, but problems with aircraft timetabling and route marketing has delayed this to late August or September. Northwest Airlines is planning to operate from Detroit to Beijing, SIA to New York via Beijing and Cathay to Toronto and New York. Others expected to take part include Air Canada and Canadian Airlines, flying from Toronto to Beijing and Hong Kong, respectively, and United Airlines to India.

RACGAT is due to convene a meeting in Anchorage on 28 September with representatives of the airlines, IATA, ICAO and the adjacent states of Canada, China, Japan and Mongolia. This will be followed by a further three months of flight trials, with the airlines hoping for Polar access by mid-1999. The Russian authorities are working to a slightly more conservative timetable, with Galkin forecasting that "-by 2000 we'll have scheduled flights over the pole".

Issues still need to be resolved, not the least of which is the CAAC agreeing to additional border exit/entry points. The western Gopto crossing is open for Polar One, but with no gateway at Yabrai, Polar Two traffic will have to divert east across Mongolia to the Polar Three entry point at Intik. There is also as yet no eastern crossing for Polar Four at Magdagachi.

There is then the issue to be addressed of alternate airports in Russia. Moscow has said it will make another nine certified diversion airports available, but complains at the cost. "We would rather go another way and provide aircrews with a list of airfields available for emergency use-some of these are military and some are civil," explains Galkin.

These residual issues aside, most observers would agree that the unprecedented degree of progress and international co-ordination achieved over the last four years bodes well for the future of commercial air transportation over the pole. "There is no better example of this co-operation than the Polar One demonstration flight. Operationally and technically it has proven to be feasible and we now need to build on this," states Shah.





Los Angeles


San Francisco








New York Kennedy




Hong Kong



Los Angeles




San Francisco






New York Kennedy



New York Kennedy





Los Angeles


New York Kennedy







New York Kennedy




Los Angeles







New York Kennedy



New York Kennedy



*All distances are with nil wind, true distance

Source: Flight International