Air Routes

Early attempts to fly nonstop across the North Atlantic are described in the entry Trans-Arctic Air Route. By the start of World War II, most flights across the Atlantic were military, but these were of enormous importance for the mapping of the Arctic. The flying, especially in Greenland, and the establishment of weather stations revolutionized the reliability of weather forecasts over the Arctic seas. The idea of a northern air route remained vivid, but in 1939 it was concluded that it would be some years before there could be a realistic passenger service connecting Europe and central USA. However, the loss of shipping to submarines in World War II increased pressure to develop trans-Atlantic trials into a more reliable route for supplies. In 1941, airports were constructed in Greenland by the Americans. Among them, especially Kangerlussuaq (S0ndre Str0mfjord) and Narsarsuaq were important. An air bridge between America and Europe on the Great Circle route was thereby established, and the military infrastructure could subsequently be used for civilian flights.

After the war new Arctic air routes were discussed. The controversy between the United States and Denmark over sovereignty of Greenland and the continuing presence of US air bases meant that Denmark wanted flights from Copenhagen to Greenland but had no interest in air routes linking Greenland to New York. The Greenlandic air route system became disconnected, a one-way stretch. The North Atlantic Great Circle air route continued, but via Keflavik in Iceland and direct from England to Gander in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. These routes provided a growth source in both Iceland and Newfoundland. The routes are still in use but, since technology has improved so that planes could carry more fuel and the polar route became possible, their importance has diminished. Iceland managed to change business focus to link the capitals of the European continent primarily to New York, which has proven to be profitable, while Gander in Canada lost importance. The major technical breakthrough in passenger transport that changed the market took place in 1952 when SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) started to fly passengers to California via Thule in Greenland. It was, at that time, a 24-h flight, with a 2-h stopover at Thule. In 1956, SAS set a new distance record for commercial airlines by flying 6005 miles nonstop from Los Angeles to Stockholm, Sweden, again following the Great Circle route over Greenland. Transport by air via Thule in Greenland could save distance and fuel in future and give the Arctic a more central role in the air route system. However, the recent powerful ideas on a new American military defense system will be a hindrance for plans of that nature.

For Alaska it was the proximity to Japan that counted. Fort Richardson was established in Anchorage in 1940, and the construction of the Elmendorf Air Base started the same year. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Alaska obtained a key position in the American military defense system. The Alaska-Canada Highway was constructed in eight months in 1942, and additional army and navy bases were built. During the war the US federal government spent more than one billion dollars in Alaska and the size of the population doubled. The infrastructure built during the war was an asset after the war. The systems were interconnected and reliable and became a solid base both for economic development and for Anchorage achieving the position as the only real transport hub in the Arctic.

Air routes within the Soviet Arctic developed with Moscow as a hub, a one-dimensional approach as between Copenhagen and Greenland. This was also the case for Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Canada. Only Iceland manages really to escape the one-dimensional approach, by building on the North Atlantic air route idea and combining it with big European cities.

Cross-border Arctic air routes are few. From Anchorage in Alaska there are routes to Russia and Canada. From Greenland to Canada there is the route from Nuuk to Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay) in Nunavut. The route from Reykjavik to Halifax, although further south, is important as Halifax has a hub position.

Present-day air routes have, by and large, the structure as developed during World War II and the first years after the war. The Cold War further limited potential development of circumpolar air routes, as the Russian Arctic was closed to international aircraft and there were no flights between the United States and Russia across the Bering Strait. From 1998, Russia began to allow over-the-pole flights to test east-west circumpolar air routes. From 2002, it opened up these polar air routes to commercial flights. The shorter route between North America and Asia offers significant time savings, and the polar Siberian route is now the key to cost-efficient air routes between North America and the Far East such as Chicago to Hong Kong or Beijing. Future air freight carriers would need a refueling stop in Russia.

It is possible today to go to most Arctic places by air, either by ordinary air routes or by charter ("bush plane"). Helicopters also play an important role in air transport. The Sikorsky S-61 has almost had a legendary position, and some are still in use in Greenland for passenger transport. The drawback is that air routes are costly. This is, to a large degree, the result of a structure where most destinations are spokes, thus the lack of being able to reengineer and redesign the logistic system in the Arctic.

Air routes are served by international airlines. Most of the destinations fly one major national airline plus a few minor ones. The competitive level in air transport is low in most destinations.

Lise Lyck

See also Trans-Arctic Air Route; Transport Further Reading

Hanson Jr., Edward R. & David Jensen, "Over the top: flying the polar routes." Aviation Today, April 2002

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