Most aircraft avoid flying across the Pacific Ocean, particularly those departing from the United States for Asia. Many reasons explain this pattern and this article seeks to find out why.
Naturally, when choosing a flight you tend to look at the shortest route to get to your location.
Airlines do the same thing. When you look at your map, flying across the pacific seems like a shorter route than going over Alaska and Canada just to get to the US from Tokyo. But is this true?
Distance isn’t measured by just what you see on a map, and flying over the Pacific may just not be the best idea. Let’s examine the reasons for this.
Why Do Planes Avoid the Pacific Ocean?
Most flight routes between the United States and Asia tend to go over the northern part of the globe, specifically through Alaska and Canada.
Airlines create routes based on various factors; some of which include, the shortest route, safety, saving fuel, mechanical issues, weather patterns and shortest time. All of which contribute to the general safety of its passengers and a shorter time spent en route.
When you look at a 2-dimensional map, it seems very logical and obvious to fly over the pacific ocean straight into Asia. It even seems shorter than the north-bound flights that go around Canada and Europe just to get to Asia.
However, unlike what a 2D map might suggest, the Earth is not flat. It is spherical and curved routes are generally shorter. There are however planes that have to pass over the Pacific, these are those traveling between the U.S and Australia or New Zealand. Typically, these planes fly continuously and are equipped to handle this route.
Factors That Affect Plotting of A Plane Route
Shortest Route between Locations
To get accurate or close to an accurate measure of the distance between two locations, it is paramount to consider that the earth in itself is spherical.
The equator bulges slightly due to the earth’s 1000 mph rotational speed. Curved routes across the globe are factually shorter than straight routes.
Flying through Alaska to get to Tokyo from the United States takes a shorter time rather than going over the pacific ocean. Thus planes choose this route over flying across the Pacific.
Airlines craft routes that are close to land surfaces to cater for emergency landings. Flying across the pacific ocean towards Tokyo would take around 11 to 12 hours. The plane might encounter mechanical problems that require immediate fixing and that may be life-threatening if there is nowhere to land.
In addition to that, there may be bad weather such as storms. Storms in oceans start over 60,000 feet making it hard for planes to fly over them.
Cost and Time Savings
The cost taken to fly to a certain location is tied to the fuel consumption of planes. Longer distances mean more fuel consumption and hence higher costs. So airlines do compare distances to get the shortest possible route.
Weather Pattern Consideration
Planes normally fly at altitudes of about 30,000 feet. When a storm occurs, planes can fly over it without having any navigational issues. However, in water bodies, that is seas and oceans, storms originate at altitudes of over 60,000 feet making the option of flying over storms impossible.
The plane can also not fly through the storm since it will result in a lot of turbulence and discomfort for passengers. In addition, lightning strikes may pose a great danger to the aircraft.
Assuming a plane is en route to Tokyo from the US and it is going over the Pacific, if a storm strikes, the plane would have nowhere to land and the nearest redirection might be too far if the storm is unbearable. Planes generally stick close to the land surface to ensure the safety for their passengers in case a natural calamity strikes.
Airlines design flight routes putting in mind the possibility of a mechanical issue occurring. It is normal for engine failures or other mechanical issues to occur hence flight routes have to be within areas with airports or landing strips.
Some time back, airplanes with two engines were not allowed to fly over the Antarctic since it would be too dangerous if a mechanical issue occurred. This was based on the assumption that if one engine fails, the plane might not reach its destination.
How far above the ocean can planes fly?
The majority of commercial aircraft normally fly between 33,000 and 42,000 feet, or six and eight miles, above sea level. Normal flight altitudes for aircraft are 35,000 to 36,000 feet.
Since saving money is always a concern for airlines, the main reason why airplanes fly so high is to save fuel.
As the altitude rises, the air gets thinner, which reduces drag on the airplane. Furthermore, jet engines run more effectively at high altitudes, allowing the plane to go quicker while using less fuel.
Smaller planes cruise at much lower altitudes that do not go above 10,000 feet. They usually travel shorter distances, which contributes to this in part.
Additionally, most small aircraft lack oxygen, which would be required if they were to fly too high. They probably shouldn’t be much higher than 10,000 feet because it’s not very safe.
How long does a flight across the ocean take?
Typically, this depends on the ocean size which is the distance between landmasses that are covered by ocean water. More than 30% of the earth’s surface is covered by the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean in the world.
On average, if a Boeing aircraft crosses the Pacific Ocean, it will take about 15 and a half hours making the flight the longest continuous planned flight.
Why do planes avoid flying over Antarctica?
There are a variety of reasons why aircraft do not fly over the Antarctica region, located at the south pole. This location has a much less land mass as compared to the Arctic side and there are no landing strips for planes in case of an emergency.
The weather in this region is also considered too unfriendly and dangerous for flights and there is very little demand for trans-antarctic flights.
There are also fewer diversion airports around this region as compared to the North pole region since the continents of Africa, Australia and South America are spread apart. This also comes down to the reason above of a much less land mass. As of now, there are no planes that go through the Antarctic region.
Flights from South America to Australia and those from Australia to South Africa do pass over the antarctic coastline but do not make any stops there.
There have been several tragic occurrences in routes going through the antarctic and one such
an incident occurred in 1979 involving Air New Zealand Flight 901. The plane crashed into the side of a 12,500 volcanic mountain, Mt. Erebus near the 77th parallel. 257 passengers and crew perished in the crash.
However, some private planes still fly over Antarctica for recreational purposes and site-seeing. The shorter travels on smaller aircraft are safer traveling in this region.
Can planes fly over the North Pole?
It is completely fine to fly over the North Pole, many planes do fly over the north pole in a bid to shorten the distance and time. Take an example of the flight route between Los Angeles and Dubai which goes over the North Pole. Also, flights between Tokyo and the US go through Alaska.
A few years ago, flying over the poles wasn’t popular, but now, because of advancements in aircraft engineering, even aircraft with only two engines can fly over these regions. Pilots flying over the poles navigate the planes to about 10,000 ft height to avoid fuel freezing.
Most passengers are said to enjoy this experience as they can view the polar regions which would be a rather rare occurrence.
A lot of things influence how a flight path is designed. To find a short and secure path, careful investigation is required. Most commercial planes have a good passenger capacity and all measures are indeed taken to ensure their safety and timely arrival.
Although flying over the Pacific Ocean seems logical to a non-aviator, the explanation behind traveling northwards is much more sound geographically. As a strategy to reduce flight times and fuel expenses, many carriers take advantage of what is occasionally referred to as “Santa’s Shortcut.”
Next time you hop on a plane and wonder why the flight route does not just cut across the globe, remember that the earth is spherical and carriers would always choose the shortest route.