Sit down and watch the boards at an airport, and you’re unlikely to see any flights heading for the North Pole. The reasons for this are pretty obvious.
Although humans have lived within the Arctic circle for a long time, the North Pole itself is uninhabited. There are no hotels for people to stay in, and landing a plane on the shifting ice at the pole would be foolish.
But that doesn’t mean no flights ever pass over the Arctic. In fact, at times this has been quite a busy polar route.
Although aircraft are required to descend below 10,000 feet to counteract the cold, a polar route can cut hours off a journey between North America and Asia.
Polar flight might not be common, but it’s slowly becoming an essential route for modern aircraft.
Discover more about why some planes fly over the North Pole, and why more planes don’t, with this guide to flights across the polar region.
Do Planes Fly Over The North Pole?
Planes do fly over the North Pole, and they actually do so surprisingly often. However, regular flights over the North Pole are a relatively recent phenomenon, and it still isn’t close to the world’s busiest flight path.
Both commercial and cargo aircraft pass over the Arctic, although few of them go directly over the pole. However, the American Federal Aviation Administration defines the North Pole as an area north of 78 degrees north latitude.
Even though these routes might not take you directly above the geographic or magnetic North Pole, they still can come pretty close!
To fly over the Arctic, airlines have to follow certain safety policies. Special communication equipment, cold weather suits, and emergency plans for passengers, all must be on board.
The increasing popularity of the polar route is motivated partly by the areas of land connected. By flying over the North Pole, a quicker route between North America and Asia is revealed.
As both commercial and cargo flights between these two continents increase, we can perhaps expect to see even more Arctic adventures.
Why Don’t More Planes Fly Over The North Pole?
The big reason that the North Pole isn’t a more active flight path is that there’s very little reason for going near it.
Close to the frozen north, there are fewer and fewer long term human settlements, and even fewer places where commercial travelers might take a vacation.
In other cases, it just makes more sense to go around the North Pole, and stick closer to countries and land masses where there are options available for emergency landings.
If there was a fault with the aircraft close to the polar north, there’s a reduced infrastructure to cope with the problem. Take a slightly longer route, and you’ll find yourself in safer spaces.
Not to mention, few flight routes really save time by crossing directly over the North Pole. There are some towns and cities within the Arctic circle, the majority of human settlement is away from the cold poles.
Most flights can avoid taking the slightly risky route over the Arctic, without adding much to the flight time.
There is a safety concern involved with flying over the North Pole, although technological advances reduce the risk.
Freezing conditions can affect the function of the plane, and any aircraft would have to be equipped to deal with the ice.
To pass over the North Pole, planes are required to fly around 10,000 feet, to prevent the fuel from freezing. Quite a descent, considering the average commercial aircraft flies higher than 31,000 feet.
Overall, there are a few reasons that make the average polar trip just not worth the effort.
What Flight Routes Pass The North Pole?
Planes that fly over the North Pole are typically taking advantage of the time that can be saved traveling up and over, rather than around.
For that reason, these northern flights often leave North America, and land in Asia (or the other way around).
Looking at a flat map, the obvious way to travel from New York to Hong Kong is straight across the Pacific.
However, the actual quickest journey takes you across the top of the Earth, over the North Pole, and back down the other side.
There are two big advantages for travelers interested in this route.
First, this is the quicker route, and can shave two hours off the journey. A decent chunk to take out of an otherwise arduous flight time, particularly if you’re traveling for business rather than pleasure.
Secondly, this is a very scenic route. Due to the freezing polar temperatures, all planes are required to descend below 10,000 feet when passing over the Arctic.
This gives a rare glimpse at an otherwise still mysterious part of the world.
What About The South Pole?
While the North Pole sees some air traffic, the South Pole is almost completely quiet. There are currently no commercial flights that cross over the Antarctic, and only a small number come close to skirting the edge.
This is mainly a safety issue. While the North Pole is fairly close to other land masses, and no plane is ever too far from another airport, the South Pole is completely isolated.
If there was a technical fault flying over the South Pole, it would take hours to reach the nearest airport.
But there’s also a lack of need. The only flight route that would benefit from passing over the South Pole would be Australia to South America.
Rather than risking the isolated South Pole, airlines prefer a longer, safer route, brushing the Antarctic coastline.
Airplanes do fly close to the North Pole, with some commercial airlines choosing a polar route as the quickest way between North America and Asia.
These flights still aren’t hugely common due to the associated safety risk, and a general lack of need. However, in some cases, this journey can cut several hours off the flight time.
And, thanks to fuel saving necessities, aircraft over the Arctic need to fly at a lower altitude, giving guests a chance to experience the icy pole up close.