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TRAVEL WATCH: AUGUST 16, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 6

On Top of the World, A New Way to Fly

Illustration for TIME by Norm Bendell


The Chinese town of Qingdao is blessed with a Californian climate, huge, clean beaches and a rugged, mountainous coastline

The first flight over the North Pole took off on May 9, 1926. Navigating that high-flying frosty adventure was a fur-wearing, alcohol-bearing American explorer, Richard Byrd; the pilot was Byrd's fellow countryman Floyd Bennett. If the International Air Transport Association has its way, flying across the North Pole will soon become routine--and much less grueling--for dateline trippers. Best of all, the advent of polar longhauls will create shorter, non-stop flights and more options on the tedious journey from North America and Europe to Asia.

A special IATA group is meeting next week in the Russian city of Yakutsk to hammer out the last few details holding up the opening of polar aviation routes. "We've worked through the bilateral agreements between the states, the air-traffic management systems are in place and there are no outstanding technical issues," says Tony Laven, IATA's Asia-Pacific technical director and secretary of the group. "We're now down to nitty-gritty institutional matters, such as confirming airspace rights, renegotiating flight schedules and working out the necessary changes at airports."

What's in all this for passengers? New and faster ways to go further, with four proposed polar routes between Asia and Europe and Asia and North America. Test flights of the new routes have been taking place since last year, clocking up time savings from 45 minutes between Detroit and Beijing to 5 1/2 hours between New York and Hong Kong. The variations depend on distance and yearly jetstream directions. The first regular routes to officially open for business will likely be the two over-the-top flight paths to Northeast Asia, the most commercially viable as they will link cities like New York and Chicago to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. Links to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia will follow.

The inaugural polar test flight, a Transaero Airlines charter from Moscow to Toronto last year, was overshadowed a day later when Cathay Pacific landed its first polar flight (dubbed "Polar One") at the new Hong Kong International Airport, breaking the world record for the longest non-stop commercial flight in history. The flight from New York took 15 1/2 hours, down from the usual 21. Northwest Airlines was the first U.S. carrier to cross the North Pole, flying non-stop from Detroit to Beijing last August, while United Airlines made its first over-the-world hop, from Chicago to Hong Kong, this past January. These carriers, along with Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, British Airways and KLM, are now hoping to make polar power permanent.

The airlines are convinced that polar routes are a cool way to go. "We are more than satisfied on a technical basis that a polar service is feasible," says Antony Tyler, Cathay Pacific director of corporate development. Polar longhauls, with aircraft able to ride high-speed jetstreams for most of the year, would also save the airlines millions of dollars annually on fuel costs.

But whether passenger demand will take flight remains to be seen. United Airlines, for one, has cancelled its planned non-stop polar service between Chicago and Delhi. "For airlines, the key issue is whether or not people will want to fly these new shorter longhauls, and whether the polar flights will pay off," says Richard Stirland, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. "There's also a dichotomy between airlines introducing more non-stop services linking two points and their commitment to alliances and hubs, which redistribute passengers onto their partner airlines in other regions." Stirland adds that there's still "a long way to go" on getting national aviation officials of China and possibly North Korea to reduce the amount they want to charge carriers. Resolving such regulatory and financial issues could delay the introduction of the proposed routes by at least two years.

The good news is that Russia is not keen to wait that long. The world's most expansive country is sitting beneath an aviation goldmine, owning huge swaths of the four polar routes under negotiation. (It's no coincidence that next week's crucial IATA meeting will be in Russia.) After decades of giving the Cold War shoulder to foreign airlines, Russia is now eager to open its skies to overflights as quickly as possible. Every polar-plying plane flying across its airspace could be asked to pay 75¢ a km per passenger in transit fees, a toll that could earn the country about $200 million annually.

After the outstanding issues are resolved and the polar flight business takes off, air travelers will be ecstatic, predicts IATA's Laven: "They won't have to waste an entire day on a plane, let alone switch planes." Stirland feels passengers will appreciate having the option to "choose between a shorter longhaul service that may fly less frequently, versus another carrier that offers greater frequency and more routes, and then compare whether the fares are reasonable." More polar power to the people.

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