Commercial aircraft have been flying over the North Pole since 1957, when Scandinavian Airlines began Douglas DC-6 service from Oslo to Anchorage and on to Tokyo. Back in those bad old days, the impassable airspace of the Soviet Union stood smack in the middle of most logical routes from Europe to East Asia, so airlines would take passengers on a circuitous journey through Alaska. When Finnair introduced the first nonstops from Europe to Japan in 1983, they had to do so by flying over the pole and down through the Bering Strait.

These early transpolar routes died in 1994, when Russia opened up its airspace. Within the next few years, the Russian government designated four polar routes for flights from North America to Asia:

  • POLAR 1: Over Altai to South Asia (e.g. Vancouver - Delhi)
  • POLAR 2: Over Irkutsk to Southeast Asia (e.g. Chicago - Singapore)
  • POLAR 3: Over eastern Sakha to central China (e.g. New York - Hong Kong)
  • POLAR 4: Over Yakutsk to northeast China (e.g. Detroit - Beijing)
Setting up these routes proved to be difficult, because there were few airports in Siberia that could handle an entire widebody load of passengers in an emergency. Russia had to build hotels, maintenance facilities, and extended runways at several airports in order to accommodate such contingencies. Airlines using the new routes had to equip their aircraft with extra medical gear, as well as cold-weather suits that crew members could use in an icecap emergency. Radios can be affected by solar radiation, and jet fuel has to be of a grade that won't freeze at extremely low temperatures.

Another problem lies in the avionics. The flight management system, which stores the waypoints for the route, can get very confused if the aircraft is at the North Pole, since it runs into the time-old "every direction is south" problem. Autopilots get confused when the plane's heading changes from north to south in an instant, and can get stuck in circles. (In fact, if you try to fly over the pole in Microsoft Flight Simulator, the program will hang. Bug, or reflection of reality?) Some flight computers have hacks to get around this: the Boeing MD-11, for instance, starts ignoring location data when it gets within two miles of the pole, and will simply fly straight and level for a few minutes before updating its coordinates.

For a number of reasons, the new polar routes still aren't widely used, and chances are that if you go from America to Delhi or Singapore or Hong Kong, you'll stop in Europe or Japan.