The trouble with flying over Antarctica – and the airline that's planning to start

Hugh Morris
Probably a good thing planes don't disturb these little guys - ALB

The age of ultra long-haul travel has dawned with more and more globe-trotting flights making the world seem smaller and smaller with every passing year.

But it is reassuring, perhaps, to know that there remains a part of the planet that has not yet been truly conquered by our global airlines.

Antarctica.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and relaxation of aviation agreements between Russia and its Arctic allies, the North Polar route has become a handy way for North American carriers to fly routes across the top of the planet to destinations in Asia and the Middle East - and vice versa.

The routes flown by Emirates from Dubai to US cities on the West Coast pass within a whisker of the North Pole.

But at the other end of the planet, the South Pole, Antarctica remains slow-going for planespotters.

One of least-touched landscapes on the planet Credit: getty

Why don’t planes fly over Antarctica?

The White Continent does not have much in the way of infrastructure and herein lies why planes do not fly over it.

Something called ETOPS (Extended Operations) governs how far from an emergency diversion airport certain aircraft are allowed to fly, according to its model. For example, an Airbus A350 has been awarded a higher ETOPS value than a Boeing 737, meaning it can fly further from land towards its destination, and therefore on a straighter, more efficient route.

The restrictions placed on aircraft previously - at first 60 but now usually up to 180 minutes - meant that Antarctica was off-limits as it had no registered diversion airports, so planes would have to divert a considerable distance to safety. However, this changed in 2011, when regulators introduced ETOPS 330, making it possible for aircraft to fly pretty much anywhere in the world.

No airline has yet taken it upon themselves to put such freedom to the test in and around the South Pole, but many come near.

Air New Zealand’s service from Auckland to Buenos Aires comes relatively close, as does the Qantas flight from Sydney to Johannesburg. Sydney to Santiago de Chile, also operated by Qantas, currently holds the title for the most southerly Polar route,

But there is not a service that rides roughshod over Antarctica. Yet.

A US Air Force runs a refuelling trip to a research base Credit: getty

Will Norwegian be the first to fly over Antarctica?

It will if the low-cost, long-haul airline has its way. Norwegian’s Argentinian off-shoot, Norwegian Air Argentina, has applied and been granted permission by the South American country’s regulators to fly south across the White Continent to Perth.

The route, likely flown on one of the carrier’s 787 Dreamliners, would practically bisect Antarctica before arriving at the west coast of Australia. The 7,839-mile route from Perth to Buenos Aires would, however, probably not head straight for the South Pole and would instead skirt the shore and take advantage of the strong easterly winds that circle the continent.

Buenos Aires to Perth as the crow flies Credit: Great Circle Mapper

The purpose of the route would be to connect South America with Asia, using Perth as a stop-off on the way to Singapore, but Norwegian now needs permission from Australian and Singaporean authorities.

Argentina’s ambassador to Australia, Hugo Gobbi, said the route “would be a real game-changer for both Argentina and Australia”, with Perth benefitting in the same way it has done from Qantas’s non-stop flight from London, even though the majority of passengers continue their travel onwards.

The route would mean British travellers could do a round-the-world trip in three flights - London to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires to Perth, and Perth back to London.

What about sightseeing flights?

While no airline has yet opted to fly over Antarctica en-route to another destination, flights to and around Antarctica purely for observation are operated by Qantas, departing Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide on a 747 and lasting just over 12 hours. About four hours is spent over the White Continent.

The services are slightly bizarre in that some passengers are able to reserve window seats for the entire flight, while some rotate and others are stuck in the middle.

Operator Antarctica Flights assures those wedged in the middle that “ample viewing can still be achieved by walking to any available window space or exit zone”. “There is a fantastic atmosphere of cooperation among passengers as they share the experience,” it says. “This is unlike any flight you have been on before.”

The plane flies at around 10,000 feet over the ice in looping figures of eight, with around 19 different flight plans meaning the flight crew can attempt to find clear sky even during inclement weather. Aircraft do not fly lower so as not to disturb nature.

Air New Zealand used to offer similar flights but cancelled them in the wake of the Mt Erebus disaster, when a sightseeing plane carrying 257 passengers and crew crashed into a mountainside in 1979, killing all on board. The airline has never resumed such flights

Do you have to be especially prepared for flying polar routes?

Yes, distance is not the only consideration. This is less of an issue flying south as there is nowhere to land on Antarctica, but for airlines skirting the North Pole, they must be prepared.

The US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has published guidance for carriers that states the following requirements:

  • A minimum of two “cold weather anti-exposure suits” must be on board
  • Special route-specific training on weather patterns
  • Enhanced communication capabilities
  • Recovery plans for appropriate Arctic diversion airports
  • Strategies to ensure fuel does not freeze

Navigation also has to be considered because of the disruption caused by the North Pole. “In the polar region, magnetic heading is unreliable or totally useless for navigation,” says a Boeing report on polar operations.

Where do planes land if something goes wrong?

The designated airports for emergency landings for planes flying over the Arctic circle exist in some of the harshest conditions on the planet: think Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. Airports include Tolmachevo, Irkutsk, Iqaluit and Svalbard.

In February United Airlines questioned the suitability of Goose Bay, in Newfoundland, as a diversionary airport after passengers were stranded at the Canadian airport for 16 hours in freezing temperatures. Temperatures outside reached minus 30C.