Why Planes Fly Over The North Pole But Not The South Pole

Hey, have you ever wanted to fly between Perth,
Australia and Buenos Aires, Argentina nonstop? Probably not, but it should make you mad to
know that even if you did want to, you can’t. That route would go almost directly over the
south pole, and—with the exception of super specialized sightseeing flights—there aren’t
any commercial flights that us regulars can go on that fly anywhere near the pole. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. The first problem with flying over Antarctica
is pretty intuitive: it’s cold.

Cold enough, in fact, that in March of 2001,
the FAA put in place special rules governing what are called “polar routes”—any plane
or magical sleigh flying above 78 degrees North or below 60 degrees South. Now, I could just read the rules off of this
really long PDF I found on the Boeing website, but I don’t really feel like doing that,
so I’m just going to play this old tape I found instead. Hello pilots, happy March of 2001, which is
the year that it currently is and one that will no doubt shape up great for the concept
of airplanes.

Have you ever wanted to fly over “the poles?” Well, it’s not poss—well, it’s as easy
as 1, 2, 3… wait, there are more than three ste—all you need to remember is one simple
word: SCEMPT. Yes, with SCEMPT, flying over the poles is
a breeze. Keen pilots may notice that the first letter
of SCEMPT is “S,” which of course stands for special training. All pilots and crew manning polar flights
must have special training for flying in arctic conditions and maintaining equipment in the
extreme cold.

Your crew must also have access to at least
two cold-weather anti-exposure suits, for unknown rea—because if you have to get out
of the plane at an unexpected stop it might be cold. Before you chart your course, the FAA will
need to sign off on a route of emergency alternate airports for unexpected landings due to mechanical
or medical issues, and plans to evacuate passengers from each of those airports within 48 hours
of landing. During the flight, you’ll need to closely
monitor your fuel temperature, because if your fuel starts to drop below freezing temperature,
you’ll need to change your altitude or just give up and fly to Cancun.

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Polar flights will also necessitate the use
of charts with your true heading, rather than traditional magnetic navigation. That’s because the poles have an area of
magnetic unreliability, due to the presence of dark magi—due to science. As long as you can remember to SCEMPT, your
passengers will be spared a horrible, horrible dea—
Now, while these extra rules might disincentivize a route over Antarctica, they wouldn’t necessarily
prevent it—after all, commercial flights regularly follow these rules up north. Major routes like Dubai to Los Angeles, New
York to Hong Kong, and New Delhi to San Francisco all shave hours off their flight time by flying
over the North Pole, either because Earth is a sphere or because there’s a very generous
time wizard hanging out somewhere in Greenland. But if it’s not just the South Poles poley-ness,
there must be another factor at play—and that’s where our second problem comes in.

pexels photo 5608228

Basically, every commercial twin-engine plane
is given a certain rating for how far it can be, at any given time, from a suitable diversion
airport. This is to make sure that there’s always
a runway that a flight can divert to in the event of an emergency, like if one of your
engines fails or you run out of those little bags of peanuts. This rating is called ETOPS, and it’s measured
in flight-time—before 1985, all twin-engine planes were ETOPS-60, meaning they could only
ever fly within a 60 minute radius from an airport. Because of this restriction, flying over any
major stretch of ocean had to be done by larger three or four engine planes. As planes got better, ETOPS numbers went up—nowadays,
most common commercial planes like the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 can have a rating
of up to ETOPS-180––that covers about 95% of the globe: pretty much everything…
except for Antarctica.

To put things into perspective, the closest
potential diversion airport to the South Pole is the Ushuaia International Airport in Argentina,
but it’s still about 2,500 miles, or 4,000 kilometers, away. That’s like spraining your ankle in Manhattan
and walking to Nicaragua to get it fixed… assuming you can walk at 560 miles per hour
in a straight line over the ocean, in which case a sprained ankle probably isn’t that
big of a problem… okay, look, it’s not a great analogy, but the point is: the South
Pole is far away.

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Even the longest-range commercial aircraft
in the world, the Airbus A350, caps out at a rating of 370 minutes—leaving a fairly
large chunk of the continent off-limits to law-abiding pilots. Despite all of these restrictions, an airline
could, theoretically, route a flight over part of Antarctica—they just need the right
plane, the right equipment, and a specially-trained crew. At the end of the day, though, there just
aren’t many routes over Antarctica that make sense. The vast majority of international flights
already take place in the northern hemisphere, since that’s the hemisphere with 90% of
Earth’s population and 100% of Earth’s M&M stores. Now, some flights do come close to the Antarctic
coast—like the routes between Sydney and Johannesburg or Santiago—and depending on
wind conditions they will sometimes fly over a tiny bit of Antarctica, but absolutely zero
go anywhere close to the pole itself.

Remember the theoretical route I brought up
at the beginning of the video, from Perth to Buenos Aires? That’s pretty much the only one, and there
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As found on YouTube