The passengers on the Polar Express in the 2004 eponymous film travelled to the frozen Arctic region in a train. Those taking the New Delhi-San Francisco Air India flight from this Thursday may also catch a glimpse of the icy landscape when they look down from the windows of the plane.
The flight will now be taking the Arctic route, cutting travel time by an average 30 minutes. The planes will also consume a minimum of 2 tonnes less fuel per trip. The airline operates nine weekly flights between the two cities. The distance is currently covered in 14.5-15.5 hours.
“Our flights on the US route are doing well”, said Air India Chairman Ashwani Lohani, adding that the situation was now back to normal after the opening of Pakistan airspace. He said the traffic on the US route was mostly unidirectional and most flights had 80 per cent occupancy.
Lohani said those on the New Delhi-San Francisco flight could also expect a revamped menu and a refreshed look in the first-class cabin. “First class passengers on US flights will be able to pre order meals from the next month.”
Air India’s operations department, headed by Captain Amitabh Singh, began working on the polar route three months back. While the airline’s non-stop flights to the US cross Russia and Canada, the polar flights will fly further north through the icy Arctic regions.
Polar route operations require an airline to take specific measures with regard to unscheduled diversions in remote areas of Russia, passenger safety and comfort in the case of diversions, fuel monitoring to ensure it does not freeze, navigation, communication and pilot training.
Pilots are also required to carry special suits to protect them from extreme cold.
Air India received the nod from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) last week. Captain Rajneesh Sharma and Captain Digvijay Singh will operate the first polar route flight.
The airline will cut down on flight time and fuel burn because of shorter routes and optimal wind conditions. Currently, Air India’s San Francisco-bound flight goes east over the Pacific Ocean, taking advantage of a favourable wind, while its inbound flight comes over Russia. The polar routes reduce the distance between the two cities to around 7,200 nautical miles. The fuel saved is expected to be about of 2-7 tonnes per flight.
Air India operates a 238-seat Boeing 777-LR aircraft with three class configurations on this route. Flight planning on this route factors in en route wind and weather, geopolitical tensions and route-navigation charges. Polar routes are being used by other Asian, European and US carriers but Air India’s flight planning did not consider routes beyond 78 degree North latitude because of lack of procedures.
While the regulatory approval now permits Air India to use the polar routes, actual route selection could vary each day as it depends largely on en route wind conditions.
Handling unscheduled diversions could be a big challenge and Air India has tied up with an agency in Russia to provide temperature-controlled buses and arrange hotel accommodation for passengers. The DGCA norms allow the airline complete post-diversion recovery in 12-48 hours.