Air India hoisted its Boeing 777 aircraft over the North pole to become the first Indian airline to operate commercial flights overflying the polar region. Its Delhi-San Francisco flight, which usually overflies the Atlantic or the Pacific ocean, cut across latitudes instead on 15 August 2019 to fly over zero degree north in a feat that would probably be Air India's last hurrah before it is thrown into the throes of privatisation.
- Given the ongoing tension with the neighbour, the run-up to the polar route debut had Air India’s operations department chalk up two flight plans.
- Delhi-San Francisco flight AI-173 lifted off at 4 am, with about 243 passengers on board, overflew Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and overflew the North Pole by 12.27 pm to cross over to the other side of planet Earth.
- When we crossed Russia, we left all the air traffic behind. For close to nine hours we saw no traffic, no aircraft, just endless expanse of snow and ice, said Capt Rajneesh Sharma, one of the two commanders in the two crew set that operated the flight.
- As we crossed over the North Pole and went down the other side of the planet, the navigation display swung 180 degree to go from North to point South.
- It was quite a sight," he said. Hours before reaching the top of the world, the commander had made an inflight announcement, giving a full brief of the flight.
- After the Boeing 777 crossed over, the cockpit made a sat comm call to Ai chairman and managing director and later they received a congratulatory call from their operations department The flight landed in SFO at 6.32 am local time, about half-an-hour before its scheduled time of arrival, 7 am.
- Till now, AI used to operate the Delhi-SFO flight, launched in December 2015, over Atlantic and Pacific. The Indian aviation regulator and the US regulator cleared AI to operate the polar route recently.
- AI’s Delhi-SFO might be the only flight in the world which has three routing options that take it over the Atlantic or Pacific or the North Pole.
- Air India first operated this route in 2007 when its pilots flew a brand new Boeing 777 from Seattle to Delhi. The fuel savings on the polar route are expected be in the region of 2 to 7 tons, depending on the wind conditions. The resultant decrease in carbon emissions will be about 6 ton to 21 ton per flight.
- The cross-polar route was official opened to commercial flights in February 2001 by the US aviation regulator, marking an important milestone in air travel between North America and Asia.
- Called the "Santa’s short-cut" back then, among the challenges in operating the polar route today are: limited choice for diversion alternate airports, solar radiation, fuel freezing, passenger and aircraft retrieval in case of diversion.
- Finnair was the first airline to fly the polar route, said an AI official. Among the airlines that fly the polar route, which are four routes north of 78 degree latitude, are Emirates, United, Air Canada, Aerochina etc.