Great Circle Route over the pole cleared for Branson's Virgin Air

This will shave six hours off a flight from London to Fiji, which had to either stop in Los Angeles or Seoul en-route.

There’s a good side and a bad side to this.

The good side: Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people traveling the Virgin Air (and other airlines) great circle route from London to Hawaii or Fiji will be able to see that the North polar ice cap has not melted away as some would believe have forecast.

The bad side: Sir Richard Branson, who has paired up with Al Gore in the past as a global eco champion, may take a hit from having planes spew jet exhaust in what some people call a highly sensitive region. I wonder if an EIR had to be filed for stratospheric effects? From The Independent:

Airlines cleared to use Santa’s short-cut

New destinations and shorter journey times on way after North Pole route is approved for passenger jets.

Hard-pressed airlines have been handed the perfect Christmas present: permission to fly twin-jet aircraft over the North Pole, saving millions on fuel costs, opening up new destinations and reducing damage to the environment.

Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, told The Independent: “This new development really does open up a whole new world and will allow us to take our Dreamliners to more exciting and exotic places. Our new fleet of 787s could well be flying to Honolulu or even Fiji one day.” Fiji straddles the 180-degree line of latitude, and the most direct track passes directly over the North Pole – though because of the distance, over 10,000 miles, the payload would need to be restricted. The new policy could also make no-non-stop routes to Tahiti in the South Pacific and Anchorage in Alaska viable.

And Sir Richard Branson looked forward to new sightseeing opportunities: “Apart from the stunning destinations on arrival, the Arctic scenery will be just amazing on the way.”


I look forward to all those tourist photos and video from the window seats saying;

“Gosh, look at all that ice, I thought the North Pole had melted according to the Guardian!”

Full story at The Independent

h/t to Dr. Ryan Maue

Addendum: Since some people haven’t clicked through the link to the article, they get the mistaken impression this is “new”. It’s only new for two engine jets, of which Branson has many. Four engine jets have been making great circle routes for years but two engine jets have been limited by ETOP rules related to an engine failing and distance to nearest airport. – Anthony


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Ohno! The soot from Branson’s jet exhaust will fall on the Arctic ice and melt it even faster!
Or maybe not.

And if they have to ditch or something, all those people will be dead, even if they survive the emergency landing.


Maybe he could run his jets on coal………


Is this new? I have flown over the pole from Coepenhaven (I think that is how the Danish spell it) to Tokyo. Just PR I reckon. Branson is good at that.

Philip Bradley

From Wikipedia,
Contrails, by affecting the Earth’s radiation balance, act as a radiative forcing. Studies have found that contrails trap outgoing longwave radiation emitted by the Earth and atmosphere (positive radiative forcing) at a greater rate than they reflect incoming solar radiation (negative radiative forcing). Global radiative forcing has been calculated from the reanalysis data, climatological models and radiative transfer codes. It is estimated to amount of 0.012 W/m2 for 2005, with an uncertainty range of 0.005 to 0.0026 W/m2, and with a low level of scientific understanding.[4] Therefore, the overall net effect of contrails is positive, i.e. a warming effect.[5] However, the effect varies daily and annually, and overall the magnitude of the forcing is not well known: globally (for 1992 air traffic conditions), values range from 3.5 mW/m2 to 17 mW/m2. Other studies have determined that night flights are mostly responsible for the warming effect: while accounting for only 25% of daily air traffic, they contribute 60 to 80% of contrail radiative forcing. Similarly, winter flights account for only 22% of annual air traffic, but contribute half of the annual mean radiative forcing.
More Arctic warming.

Richard G

How about a route over the south pole to NZ?


a big enviro-weenie like Branson should not be allowed to fly jets anywhere near the Arctic Circle
not saying there is a real problem with it, simply that Branson deserves to be tied up in environmental reviews for a decade or more….


By shortening the duration of the flight there will be a net reduction in greenhouse gases emitted. A win-win, what’s the problem?

kbray in california

Virgin could hire pole dancers as entertainment…
Virgin Pole Dancers.

John F. Hultquist

Fiji straddles the 180-degree line of latitude
The really funny line is “the Arctic scenery will be just amazing on the way. ” [Richard Branson]
They must be flying these at about 7,000 feet:

kbray in california

What does the plane do if there is a magnetic pole reversal ?
Fly in the other direction ?
Stop dancing ?

Here is some info on polar flights.
Happy holidays everyone. Safer travels.

Alex Cull

Looking forward to travelling in one of Sir Richard’s Boeing 787s from Heathrow to Hawaii one day, for a nice break from wintry England (and being able to admire the polar scenery from my window seat, en route.)
Here’s to aviation, innovation and enterprise, and hoping they make a full recovery from the attack of the green meanies!
Also Merry Xmas to all at WUWT, and here’s to an excellent and interesting 2012!


Anyone who lives that far north has to burn something to survive so it’s no big deal. Greens are hypocrits as usual.

EO Peter

Was under impression that Mount Erebus disaster put an end to “civilian” flight over Antartica due to the difficult and truly horrific conditions for those involved in the recovery operation.
I know this is North Pole but still IMHO a difficult place, especially if Murphy’s Law kick in!


I see some polar flights:

I also read there are many cargo flights over the pole, too.

Ian W

As Cementafriend states this is not new the ‘polar routes’ are flown by all sorts of aircraft mainly three or four engined such as Boeing 747 and Airbus A340. However, there are strict rules for twin engined aircraft flying over ocean areas, the poles and Siberia where aircraft are more than 60 minutes from a suitable diversion airport. These rules are known as the Extended Twin engine Operations (ETOPS) rules. Aircraft are tested to see how far they can fly if one of their two engines fail and that limits the types of routes that they can operate. See
The Boeing 787 is a new aircraft and presumably Virgin Atlantic has gone through the ETOPS approval procedure for their new route. The 787 has just completed a fastest ever in class flight East around the world from Seattle in which one leg was Seattle to Dhakar, Bangladesh a range record for the class but also using 20% less fuel than other aircraft in the class. See . The 787 is one of a growing set of aircraft types that can literally fly from anywhere on the globe to anywhere – direct.
Philip Bradley says:
December 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm
From Wikipedia,
Contrails, by affecting the Earth’s radiation balance, act as a radiative forcing. Studies have found that contrails trap outgoing longwave radiation emitted by the Earth and atmosphere (positive radiative forcing) at a greater rate than they reflect incoming solar radiation (negative radiative forcing).

This is an old chestnut that is rolled out by warmists…
Contrails are caused when the water vapor from the jet exhaust condenses and then freezes into ice-crystals in the upper atmosphere.
* If the humidity is low the exhaust water vapor does not condense and remains as a vapor (the normal case)
* If the atmosphere the aircraft is flying in is close to saturated then contrails may form as the exhaust water vapor forms ice crystals and then the ice crystals sublimate back into water vapor – these are the non-persistent contrails.
* If the atmosphere is saturated – 100% humidity – then the exhaust water vapor freezes into ice crystals and persistent contrails will form
* If the atmosphere is super-saturated (quite common) then persistent contrails will form and the contrails may trigger the formation of cirrus.
Aircraft are normally in flight above you almost everywhere in the world – but contrails are not always formed as contrails (as with any clouds) _only_ occur in layers of the atmosphere where the humidity is close to 100% or more. Water vapor is far more effective at trapping infra-red than CO2, yet none of the research studies appear to have carried out any ‘control’ for the ‘radiative forcing effect’ of water vapor that is in the layer of atmosphere before any contrails form. Few take account of the albedo increase (negative forcing) caused by persistent contrails but this is difficult to measure as they are narrow and the satellites cannot discriminate them. The much quoted NASA Langley paper on temperatures after 9/11 when no aircraft were flying claimed a temperature drop due to no contrails and the flying ban – yet did not account for the dome of high-pressure and very dry air over the eastern USA in the days they measured (remember how clear the sky was in the reports of 9/11).


Perhaps he should rename to ‘Northwest Passage Air.’
The way history can get garbled over time, future people may blame him for the ‘permanent’ melting open of the Northwest passage!


This is probably not new permission to fly over the pole, but rather new permission to fly twin engine jets, or this particular model of jet over the pole. For many years the regulations required at least three engines to fly far over the ocean. After decades of high reliability, they finally started to let twin jets fly over the oceans in the 80’s. They may have still been restricted from polar flights though. It is less expensive to maintain two large engines than three or four medium size ones, so airlines much prefer twins.

There are indeed dangers considering that at the poles stratosphere is as low as 9km (30,000ft) well below airlines cruising height.


Purest PR BS. Commercial flights have been flying over the high Arctic since the 1960s, and various airlines fly between east coast USA and China nonstop. American Airlines has daily nonstop flights from Chicago to Shanghai which pass over or very close to the pole.


No one on the plane will comment about how much ice there is! In Winter it is pitch black up there. Nap, catch a movie and pass some long hours in the dark, that is all.


Like cementafriend I have flown over the N. Pole. At the time of the Tokio Olympics, (northern summer 1964?), I flew SAS from Tokio to Copenhagen with a refuelling stop in Anchorage; the route went that way because you couldn’t fly over USSR at that time, and aircraft at that time didn’t have the range available now.
The scenery was indeed spectacular and there were open leads when, according to the announcement from the flight deck, we were just a few miles from 90N.
I guess crash-landing in mid-atlantic or mid-icefield would have much the same end result.

Mike Bromley the Part-time Kurd

Rich idiots. Aside from the inane “latitude” misnomer. Oh look at me. World-saving champion. I think we should live in the dark ages, and I’ll be flying my Dreamliner around to check up on you, so no cheating! I’ll poke my buddy Rajendra in the ribs, and we can all have a belly laugh! Really! Enjoy that blinding white spectacular scenery, Branso, your sooty exhaust should help the albedo.


Are those blue lines “great circle routes”? They don’t look it, to me.


Hmmmp ! and what do they expect to see in the dark? – Black Ice ?

John Marshall

Just shows the reliability of aero-engines today. In fact total aircraft reliability compared to my time in the RAF in the 60’s/70’s.


The article is talking about ETOPS approval (Extended Two engine Operations). I operate over the pole all the time in a 747-400. 3 and 4 engine aircraft operate under a different set of operating rules due to their ability to lose and engine and still get to an extended alternate airport. Two engine aircraft operating under ETOPS regs (especially passenger ops) have to able to reach an alternate airport in 60, 129, or 180 minutes – 60/120/180 ETOPS – from engine failure and that airport has to have facilities that can handle all your passengers. That invalidates most military and Siberian airports. Operating the 787 under 180 or 210 ETOPS allows Virgin to reach acceptable alternates – probably Fairbanks. It’s not really about an EIS, it’s simply operating a new aircraft type under a very aggressive version of existing regulations.


I guess I went off at half cock.
I’ve just read the whole newspaper article and this is a new regulation for TWIN engined aircraft.
3 and 4 engined ones have been using the route for ages. Its all to do with how far you can fly with one engine out of action.

Billy Liar

Philip Bradley says:
December 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm
Contrail at the North Pole:


We operate north of 78 degrees north latitude using grid navigation. The Flight Managemet Computer uses alternate (grid) navigation and doesn’t follow compass headings. Actually, the compass can flip back and forth several times over a several hundred mile segment. More fun than that is that GPS is useless above about N84 – there is a sizable hole in coverage near the poles. Modern FMC equipped aircraft have to revert to Inertial Navigation, which effectively dumbs down the aircraft by about 30 years. Nonetheless, operating in Polar regions is surprisingly uneventful after being trained in the unique issues it presents. And Branson is right – the view is amazing. The best scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world was north of Thule, Greenland a few days after summer solstice.

Roger Longstaff

Huh – that’s nothing. For something new try:
(We had to fly over the north pole to avoid breaking every window along the way with a sonic boom!).
Happy Christmas to all!

David, UK

Louise says:
December 23, 2011 at 11:33 pm
By shortening the duration of the flight there will be a net reduction in greenhouse gases emitted. A win-win, what’s the problem?

No problem for me either. But it would be a problem for touchy-feely AGW believers if they actually thought for a change. After all, if you actually bother to read what Branson is saying, you will see that this venture is not designed to cut down flight times, but rather is designed to open up routes and destinations hitherto unattainable: “This new development really does open up a whole new world and will allow us to take our Dreamliners to more exciting and exotic places.” Greens of course will love this regardless, because it is wonderful propaganda, to be lapped up by the media, missing the obvious irony as indeed they always do, as indeed you just did. That’s why you’re a Green: you’re naive. You’ll get wise with time, don’t worry. Until that time, keep lapping it up.


We must remember that saving the earth is a Branson hobby, just like ballooning.
This, however is business!
Happy Christmas to one and all.

Cold Englishman

Yes, he really is good at PR, but he failed to secure the UK Lottery franchise, mainly because of his perceived dishonesty. He probably would have made a good job of it, but his history is not helpful– he devised an illicit pseudo-export scam that allowed him to evade the tax payments on his merchandise. For a time he eluded the authorities but was eventually brought to justice and to jail. It cost him (and his mother) $45,000 in bail to secure his freedom.


Cementafriend, I think your memory is playing tricks – the Denmark-Japan route is very similar to the UK-Korea route in the map.
I’ve done London-Tokyo, the Siberian scenery is amazing in places, and the north was totally frozen (in spring).
But some way from the pole.


Philip Bradley has not read Lindzen and Choi.

Carsten Arnholm

Cementafriend says:
December 23, 2011 at 11:10 pm
Is this new? I have flown over the pole from Coepenhaven (I think that is how the Danish spell it) to Tokyo. Just PR I reckon. Branson is good at that.

Try København instead 🙂
Merry Christmas!


The other bad side is if the aircraft develops problems it will be far from help.
Happy Holidays to All.

Call me cynical but there may be more to this than saving time and the cost of fuel. Branson actively turns cartwheels to not pay tax if he can help it. Has Branson effectively created a loophole that will reduce the cost of those thrice damned EU flight surcharges on long haul flights? That his green credentials are taking a back seat to his wallet is a mere detail. He is a busy and important man after all and therefore not subject the the rules he would level on the rest of us. That is the nature of this particular beast.
What I actually think of the creature would not be appropriate for this site.


rossshiremannie says:
December 24, 2011 at 1:44 am
Hmmmp ! and what do they expect to see in the dark? – Black Ice ?
Land of the midnight sun? Approx 6 months of the year it’s permanent daylight at the north pole; Rest of the year permanent night. So the time of day irrelevent, it’s seasonal.

‘This is the tower here, whats your heading Beardy One’
‘Beardy One here, heading due south’
‘Ok beardy One, alter course to 90 degrees. Confirm your heading’
‘Beardy One here, heading due south’
‘Ok beardy One, alter course ANOTHER 90 degrees. Confirm your heading’
‘Beardy One here, heading due south’
Ait traffic controller to assistant ‘I think dicks been at the whacky baccy again’


More wierd and wonderful talk about contrails and positive forcings and negative forcings whatever the hell they are. Have you ever seen a sky with 100% coverage of contrails? Well, I am pretty sure you have seen a sky with 100% cloud cover. I know from personal experience that 100% cloud cover certainly stops the surface getting colder. You might notice a small increase in temperature if the cloud appears late after an early clear night but that is simply surface heat.
So why should a few contrails have any more effect on local climate than a few clouds?
I live under an airline freeway known as Green1 and have never noticed any soot. What I have noticed is that my solar oven stops heating if a contrail moves between it and the sun. It can get so bad that I have to abandon outdoor cooking. Remember the aftermath of 911.

R Barker

In the case of light twin engine aircraft, it is said that the remaining engine will always get you to the crash site. ;<))


…to see that the North polar ice cap has not melted away as some would believe.
What a stupid sentence. Name one person who says the North polar ice cap has melted away? This is terrible writing. The North Polar ice cap is melting (provable, just look at satellite shots for 2011 and compare them with 1970), but no one says they’ve melted. Please correct this sentence. Seems you were just trying to take a political swipe at environmentalists using a straw dog argument.
REPLY: Gladly, I’ll name three.
Al Gore (on his current TV website) and NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally
Mark “death Spiral” Serreze from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
Though since you got your panties in a twist, I edited the text to add “have forecast”. The routes won’t start until 2012, and that’s what I was saying in the sentence. Since you “arguethefacts” I presume now you’ll send a letter to Al Gore, Zwally, and Serreze telling them they are stupid for believing this? If you do, please send a copy to WUWT and we’ll gladly post it.- Anthony


But if he flies straight over the North Pole, won’t the Earth be turning underneath him, so that when he comes down, it won’t be Fiji he lands at, but somewhere like Brazil or Peru ?

One silver lining for passengers whose aircraft needs to make an emergency landing on the dwindling Arctic snowpack: They won’t be eaten by all of those dead or drowning polar bears! 🙂


@arguethe facts
The Polar Ice caps expand and contract the North polar Ice cap has been documented as virtually dissapearing in the past, so what?
None of it is due to us, so why pick up on the descriptive terminology over what is an overblown myth anyhow?
Now go agrgue those FACTS


No problemo — Branson can buy carbon offsets fron Al. That should be good for us all peerin in through the window (cf Animal Farm)

Persistent contrails are not always narrow. Under the right conditions they widen into actual clouds. If Branson’s polar flights are fairly frequent, the Arctic could end up almost entirely covered with clouds, at times when it wouldn’t have been cloudy without the jets.
I noted a similar phenomenon from repeated contrails here: