Transpolar flights, a shortcut through the Arctic

27 marzo 2007

In the last ten years, commercial airlines are flying north of the Arctic Circle in a growing number of new routes between North America and Asian cities. These new cross-polar routes provide an attractive shortcut to Asia, which saves some hundreds of millions on fuel and time. Since 1993, when Russia agreed to open its territory, flight times have been cut by more than four hours in some of these routes, but actually there are several important risks that every passenger should know.

Across the nigth

Flying over the North Pole is still a kind of adventure. According to Leo Brooks, an international senior captain for Continental Airlines, airplanes travel at an altitude of 31,000 to 39,000 feet and they generally fly 100 miles to the left or right of the North Pole. Right over the Artic, there is no traditional air traffic control and no radar. Air traffic control uses traditional radio position reports, a relatively old fashioned method, to keep track of the aircraft. If the airplane crashed or had any problem at this moment, it would be too far away from any inhabited area.

Because of the extended flight duration and the prevalence of very cold air masses on the polar routes, the potential exists for fuel temperatures to approach the freezing point. However, current airplane systems and operating procedures provide confidence that fuel will continue to flow unobstructed to the engines. Computer alarms go off if the fuel starts solidifying and, in that case, the pilots fly to a warmer altitude and alter the route.

Currently, United Airlines, with 1500 flights a year, is the leader in transpolar flights between America and Asia. The next closest passenger airline in terms of polar flyovers is Continental Airlines (796), folllowed by Air Canada (515) and some Asian airlines as Air China or Singapore Airlines. Thanks to these new airways, transport officials estimate that New York to Honk Kong takes five hours less than conventional routes, and Toronto to Beijing provides a four hours saving.

Radiation risk

On the other hand, recent studies show that passengers and crew members flying on transpolar routes are exposed to unusually high levels of cosmic and solar radiation. According to Robert Barish, a New York health physicist who recently spoke to the International Herald Tribune, the dosage received during each flight along the transpolar route is equivalent to three chest X-rays and may be significantly increased by solar flare radiation.

Heavy doses of radiation can cause damage to a developing fetus, provoke cancer or produce genetic mutations in human egg and sperm cells. This higher exposure on polar flights is due to the magnetic attraction that the polar region exerts on charged radioactive particles from space. Besides, the fact that atmosphere is getting thinner at the polar regions doesn't make the problem better.

Under normal conditions, any air travel involves greater exposure to cosmic and solar radiation than staying on the ground. The U.S. FAA recommends that airlines inform their flight crews of the risks. On declaration of pregnancy, a crew member must immediately switch to low-exposure flights, and some European airlines go further and ground expectant mothers until after maternity leave.

So far, the airlines flying the North Pole route say they do not inform passengers of the increased cosmic radiation risks. At the same time, scientists and airline employees unions, have expressed concern about this risks an think the airlines should inform pregnant passengers and frequent fliers about the high radiation associated with these routes.

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