Why Don’t Planes Fly Over Antarctica? Can They Fly Over The Poles?

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Flying over Antarctica makes the most sense for commercial airline routes such as Buenos Aires to Perth, so, do planes fly over Antarctica?

No, planes don’t fly over Antarctica because it is too remote and ETOPS regulation requires that aircraft are within a certain distance of a diversion airport at all times in case there are engine problems. As there are no diversion airports in Antarctica, routes must stay closer to other continents.

Keep reading to find out more about ETOPS ratings and why this prevents planes from flying over the southern polar region. We’ll also look at whether this would be possible in the future.

Why Don’t Planes Fly Over Antarctica?

The main reason why planes don’t fly over Antarctica is due to ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards) which places limitations on how far a twin-engine aircraft can fly from diversion airports.

There are other factors that impact flying over Antarctica, such as regulations for aircraft that may need to make emergency landings in cold places and the potential for the cold air to take fuel temperatures below the minimum requirements, however, these can be overcome with some planning.

Some articles suggest that navigation equipment would not work when flying near the north or south pole. Whilst this would be true for old magnetic compasses, newer GPS-based equipment that uses satellite works fine at the poles. In fact, more than 5,000 flights pass over the north pole each year1 (source: NASA).

If you enjoyed this little-known piece of information, check out our full article with 17 interesting facts about Antarctica and prepare to have your mind blown.


What is ETOPS?

Every twin-engine aircraft and airline will have an ETOPS rating.

For example, a plane and airline with an ETOPS-180 rating must never fly more than 180 minutes from a diversion airport. This means that the plane can land safely even if one of the engines fails.

The aircraft is rated based on its ability to fly with a single engine and the rare occurrence of such an instance. Meanwhile, the airline is rated on the training of its staff, both those on the ground, such as maintenance staff, and those on board including the pilot and crew2 (source: Sheffield School of Aeronautics).

When ETOPS was first introduced in 1985, the maximum was ETOPS-120, however, as technology has changed and engines have become more reliable this has gradually increased with the maximum rating now at ETOPS-370.

Given that 95% of the world can be reached whilst staying within ETOPS-2073 (source: G. Gratton, Initial Airworthiness: Determining the Acceptability of New Airborne System, 2018, p. 203) there has been little incentive for manufacturers to achieve higher safety ratings.

Notable aircraft that have higher ratings include the Boeing 787 Dreamliner at ETOPS-3304 (source: Boeing) and the Airbus A350 which has the highest ETOPS-370 rating5 (source: EASA).

However, even with the maximum ETOPS-370, it’s still not possible to fly over much of the Antarctic continent since it’s so remote and there are no suitable commercial airports on the continent itself where such large planes can land, so it would still need to be within 370 minutes flying time of the nearest airports.

The closest commercial airports to Antarctica include Ushuaia (Argentina), Invercargill (New Zealand), Hobart – Tasmania (Australia), and Port Elizabeth (South Africa). The exact ones that would be used would depend upon the route being taken.


Could a Plane Fly Over the South Pole?

With ETOPS ratings increasing at a fast pace, it’s not difficult to imagine a time when aircraft can reach every corner of the globe and still be within regulation. So, could a plane fly over the south pole?

Yes, planes could fly over the south pole just as more than 5,000 flights pass over the north pole each year. However, it would present an occupational hazard for pilots and attendants as they are exposed to high levels of radiation. This is because Earth’s magnetic field is almost non-existent at this point which increases exposure to solar radiation. 

If that didn’t make any sense, don’t worry, the below image gives a visualization of this effect. As you can see, the magnetic field is strongest around the equator and almost non-existent at the magnetic north and south pole. This field is what protects us from solar radiation that is constantly hitting Earth.

Flight attendants are already at higher risk of developing some types of cancer6 (source: E. McNeely, et al., Environmental Health, Vol. 17, No. 49, 2018) due to constantly being at a high altitude. Flying over the south pole, especially during a solar event, could cause exposure to more than the annual recommended radiation does in just one flight. 

This is why NASA is already concerned about the increase in flights over the north pole7 (source: NASA).


Do Satellites Fly Over Antarctica?

Yes, many satellites fly over Antarctica including NASA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the ESA’s Swarm Satellites. When a satellite flies over the polar regions of Earth, it is said to be in polar orbit, traveling North to South rather than East to West.

A satellite does not have to pass directly over the north or south pole to be in a polar orbit, a deviation within 30° is still classed as a polar orbit8 (source: European Space Agency).

Kieren

Kieren is the founder of Polar Guidebook. After visiting both of the polar regions and meeting the scientists and tour guides that work there, he developed a keen interest in the animals, climate, and geography of the Arctic and Antarctica.