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When United Airlines flight 895 first flew from Chicago to Hong Kong in July of 1996, it was the longest scheduled passenger flight in the world. With a “Great Circle Route” that tracks over the Canadian Arctic, this flight was always intended to operate on the polar routes – but they didn’t become available until 1999, and then only for demonstration purposes.

United completed 12 demonstration flights on the polar routes in 1999, and they officially opened in 2001.

In order to reach its destination non-stop, UAL895 normally departed with numerous seats purposely not sold and with no cargo. It could only operate in the summer due to upper level winds. This flight was so “fuel critical” that it was towed to the runway in Chicago to conserve fuel.

The increased availability of Russian airspace in the 1990s, along with the introduction of aircraft with the required range capability – particularly the long range variants of the Boeing 777 and Airbus 340 – made the concept of polar flights a reality.

A flight from JFK to Hong Kong can save over 2 hours flying time, or 16,000 litres of fuel, by using polar routes

International cooperation

The challenge then became to bring together international airlines and ANS providers from the U.S., Canada, Russia and Iceland to promote seamless, efficient and safe air traffic services throughout the polar region.

The initial framework for these flights was organized through RACGAT (Russian American Coordinating Group for Air Traffic Control). RACGAT resulted in great progress, including the opening of cross polar routes through Russian airspace.

RACGAT concluded in 2003, but the continued need for international cooperation, improvements and efficiency resulted in the formation of the Cross Polar Trans-East Air Traffic Management Providers Working Group (CPWG).

Improvements in service delivery

NAV CANADA has played an active role in the CPWG since its inception and many improvements have been made to service delivery for polar flights.

The phased implementation of Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) in Canada was critical for these flights, as it was elsewhere, effectively doubling the number of available altitudes. The ability to random route through Canadian airspace has given the airlines flexibility to deal with daily changes in the upper air winds and changes to forecasted air temperatures, turbulence and space weather.

Polar routes growth

The use of polar routes has allowed flights to operate full on most days, and save time in doing so. For air travel between many city pairs, particularly between North America and parts of Asia, polar routes provide more efficient routing, resulting in reduced flight times, fuel burn and emissions. A flight from JFK Airport to Hong Kong can save up to 2 hours flying time, or 16,000 litres of fuel, by using polar routes.

Late in 2011, lateral separation between qualified aircraft flying in the polar region was reduced from 60 NM to 50 NM. This has further improved our ability to optimize routings for aircraft prior to entering Russian airspace. The addition of new Russian entry points in late 2014, and in 2015 has also improved capacity and flight profiles.

Air traffic operating on polar routes has shown a marked increase over the years, increasing 15-fold between 2003 and 2015. In 2016, over 14,000 flights used the polar routes and it is estimated that polar routes through Canadian airspace now enable over 600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission reductions annually.