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One of the events I am most looking forward to this year is the scheduled May launch of American Airlines service between Chicago and Helsinki. Helsinki, Finland’s capital and largest city, is a fascinating place that I plan to get to know much better. It is also the hometown of our oneworld partner Finnair, which operates a major hub at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Many people don’t realize that Helsinki’s northern location — more specifically, its proximity to the North Pole — makes it a great connecting point from North America to India and much of Asia.
Even those of us who rely on geography in our careers need to be reminded occasionally that our planet is indeed round — and thus the shortest distance between some points we’re used to seeing on two-dimensional maps is not left to right or right to left but rather up and down. In fact, one of Finnair’s many points of pride is the fact that way back in 1983, it introduced the first nonstop service from Europe to Japan, flying north over the polar-ice-cap region and then down the Bering Strait to Tokyo.
At AA, we have long understood that a polar route can also be an effective shortcut between North America and Asia, one that results in shorter flying times, less fuel burned and fewer emissions in the atmosphere. However, we have only been able to seize that opportunity for a relatively short time. For most of our history, we were not allowed to fly over what was then the Soviet Union. But the end of the Cold War and the subsequent liberalization of various aviation agreements have increased our access to Russian airspace. Today we frequently fly through the polar region, most often when flying from Chicago to Shanghai, from Chicago to Beijing and from Delhi to Chicago.
We are more likely to take a polar route flying from North America to Asia than on the return trip back to North America. That may seem odd to some, since the number of miles between two points obviously doesn’t change. But wind makes a big difference, and while there is relatively little wind over the Arctic Ocean, there is often a strong tailwind blowing from Asia toward North America, making a more southerly route on the return trip more advantageous.
By the way, because of the limitations of older navigation systems, none of the polar routes we fly crosses exactly over the North Pole. At the Pole, an airplane’s compass changes from a due-north heading to due south, and that change of course could potentially lead to problems with earlier-generation autopilot systems. Fortunately, that is not an issue with the latest generation of long-haul aircraft, such as the Boeing 777s we fly, whose source of navigation is the extremely precise Global Positioning System (GPS). Nonetheless, to make polar flying equally effortless for both the new generation and the previous generations of aircraft, none of the approved civil polar routes comes closer than about 60 nautical miles from the Pole.
I have traveled the polar route many times, and what I really like about it, in addition to the time it saves, is that it forces me to look at our planet from a new perspective — to at once reimagine it and see it as it really is and always has been. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite authors, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “This earth that is our home is yet in truth a wandering star.”Wherever you’re headed today, I hope you have an over-the-top experience. Thank you for flying American.
Gerard J. Arpey