Polar Express: how airlines are laying a new route to Asia

(CNN) – That closure of Russian airspace some international carriers, including many in Europe, has forced airlines to look for alternative routes. For some flights, such as those linking Europe and Southeast Asia, this is especially problematic because Russia, the world’s largest country, sits right in between.

The problem is best illustrated by a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Tokyo. Before the invasion of Ukraine, the planes of the national air carrier of Finland took off and quickly entered the airspace of neighboring Russia, crossing it for more than 3,000 miles.

They would then enter China near its northern border with Mongolia, fly in its airspace for about 1,000 miles, before re-entering Russia north of Vladivostok.

Finally, they will cross the Sea of ​​Japan and turn south towards Narita Airport. The journey will take on average just under nine hours and cover nearly 5,000 miles.

The last such flight took off on February 26. The next day, Russia banned Finland from using its airspace, forcing the temporary cancellation of most of Finnair’s Asian destinations, including South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many airlines crossed Russian airspace.

FlightRadar24

However, by then, route planners had long been working on finding a solution. “We made the first very rough estimate about two weeks before the actual airspace closure,” says Riku Kohvakka, flight planning manager at Finnair.

The solution was to fly over the North Pole. Instead of flying southeast towards Russia, the planes will now take off from Helsinki and fly straight north, heading for the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard before crossing the Pole and Alaska.

Then they will turn towards Japan, flying over the Pacific Ocean, carefully avoiding Russian airspace. It’s not as easy as it used to be: the trip now takes over 13 hours, covers around 8,000 miles and uses 40% more fuel.

Safety First

Flightradar24_AY73-Comparison of old and new route

Routes of Finnair flight AY73 before and after the closure of Russian airspace.

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Finnair launched polar flights to Japan on 9 March. So, how can an airline completely redesign one of its longest flights in just a week?

“All major airlines have their own computerized flight planning system that they use to plan routes and change them,” explains Kohvakka. In the software, the airspace of certain countries can be crossed out and waypoints can be manually inserted to help it calculate alternative routes.

The next step is a new operational flight plan that tells the crew what the planned route is, how much fuel they need, how much the plane can weigh, and so on.

“We knew from experience that we had two options: one through the north and the other through the south,” says Kohvakka.

In addition to the polar route, Finnair can also reach Japan by flying south from Russia via the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan to China, Korea and then to Japan . It is longer, but under especially favorable wind conditions it can be used, resulting in a similar flight time.

The fuel burn data, along with navigation charges, is then used to estimate the cost of the flight.

“After that, we need to check what terrain we are flying over. For example, to see if the height at any point in the route requires special planning, in case we lose an engine or pressurization – something that is always taken into account. in preparation for the flight,” says Kohvakka.

Once the new route is approved, the focus is on aviation equipment and related processes and regulations.

Among them is one called ETOPS (Extended Range Twin Engine Performance Standards), which dates back to the 1950s when aircraft engines were less reliable and more prone to failure. ETOPS is a certificate issued to aircraft that determines how far a twin-engine aircraft can fly from the nearest airport in the event of an emergency landing due to an engine failure. “We need a suitable airport where we can return within a certain period of time,” says Kohvakka.

The time limit was originally set at 60 minutes, but as the aircraft became more reliable, it was gradually extended. Just a few weeks ago, Finnair operated under the widely accepted ETOPS 180 rule, which meant that its twin-engine aircraft could fly up to three hours from the nearest airport at any time.

However, the new Arctic route passes over very remote areas where airports are few and far between. As a result, the airline had to apply to extend this protocol to 300 minutes, meaning that the Airbus A350-900s it uses to fly to Japan can now deviate up to five hours from the nearest airport while still performing all international flights. security rules and protocols.

Cold War route

Flightradar24_JL43-Comparison of old and new route

Japan Airlines flights from London to Tokyo before and after the start of the conflict.

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Airlines routinely deal with airspace closures, such as during spacecraft launches and military exercises, and previous conflicts have reduced or stopped flights over Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan. However, a closure of this magnitude has not occurred since the Cold War.

Because overflight rights are negotiated between countries, not individual airlines, Russia and Finland did not reach an agreement until 1994, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Previously, Finnair, like most other European airlines, did not fly over the Soviet Union at all. When he began flying to Tokyo in 1983, he also crossed the North Pole and Alaska.

“So this route is not entirely new to us,” says Kohvakka. Finnair was the first airline to fly this route non-stop with DC-10s, while most others at the time had a refueling stop at Anchorage.

The new route increases fuel consumption by a whopping 20 tons, making flying environmentally and financially challenging. For this reason, Finnair prioritizes cargo transportation where demand is higher and limits passenger capacity to 50 seats (used on Airbus A350-900 flights can carry up to 330 people).

“The extra flight length will make fewer flights cost-effective,” says Jonas Murby, aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory. “They are becoming very dependent on large numbers of premium passengers and high-yield cargo; and this at a time when overall demand for travel on these routes is still relatively low. I doubt this strategy will become widespread.”

Japan Airlines is so far the only airline using the polar route for its flights between Europe and Japan. Flights from London to Tokyo are now flying over Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland, increasing the average flight time from just over 12 hours to around 14 hours and 30 minutes, according to Flightradar24.

Northern Lights

Finnair_A350_Plane_Flying restored

The A350 is said to be particularly resistant to low temperatures.

Finnair

The additional four hours of flight also take a toll on passengers and crew, further adding to costs.

“Usually we fly to Japan with a crew of three pilots,” explains Aleksi Kuosmanen, Finnair’s deputy chief pilot, who is also the captain of the new flights. “Now we operate it with four pilots. We have a special berth for the flight crew where we can sleep and rest, and we have also increased the number of meals.”

According to Kuosmanen, the passengers reacted joyfully to the new route.

“I would say people were enthusiastic,” he said. “Many have asked what time we will cross the pole and if the Northern Lights are expected.”

diploma

Finnair is handing out “diplomas” and stickers certifying that passengers have flown over the North Pole.

Finnair

There’s also the benefit of having a 300-seat cabin limited to just 50 passengers: “I walked around the cabin at night and…let’s just say they had room.”

Finnair also distributes stickers and “diplomas” to passengers confirming they have flown over the North Pole.

Technically, the polar route poses no additional safety risks.

“Cold weather is probably the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s true that there are areas with cold air masses at high altitude, but we’re pretty used to it when we fly northern routes to Tokyo in Russian airspace anyway.” , – he said. Kuosmanen says.

One problem could be that the fuel temperature gets too cold, but Kuosmanen says the A350 is particularly resistant to cold air, making it ideal for the route.

There are other minor quibbles as well. For example, satellite voice does not cover the entire Arctic region, so crews must rely on HF radio, a technology that is almost 100 years old.

In addition, areas with strong magnetic radiation should be considered during flight.

“We have a good old magnetic compass on the plane in addition to a few modern navigational aids, and it broke a bit when we flew over the magnetic North Pole,” says Kuosmanen. (It doesn’t do any harm to the aircraft at all).

Overall, from a pilot’s point of view, the polar route makes things more interesting, but doesn’t fundamentally change the job.

“Probably the polar zone is where every long-haul pilot wants to work,” says Kuosmanen. “But once a person is well prepared and well briefed, it’s just another day in the office.”

Top image: Finnair operates flights to Asia via the North Pole. Credit: Finnair

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