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For hundreds of years, explorers searched for a shortcut to India. Canada 3000 Inc. president Angus Kinnear thinks he's found one.

When Canada 3000 launches flights to New Delhi later this year, it intends to fly over the top of the globe -- instead of around it -- offering the first non-stop commercial flights between Canada and India.

"We believe that by going on the polar route, you can invent the fastest way to North America from Asia," Mr. Kinnear said.

Polar flights, unheard of a decade ago, are becoming routine thanks to new long-range planes and the easing of Cold War tensions.

Carriers including United Airlines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. have overcome safety and communications concerns to chop hours off flights to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Canada 3000 won't be the first airline to fly a commercial polar flight out of Canada if it delivers on its plans to fly into India.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. did a test flight last May. The flight took 14 hours and 59 minutes -- about three hours less than the usual route, which includes a technical stop in Anchorage, Alaska.

Air Canada is also investigating polar flights, but the challenges of merging with Canadian Airlines International Ltd. have pushed the shortened flights down on the company's priority list.

The time savings can be significant. On a typical flight between Toronto and Hong Kong -- Air Canada's top priority for polar routes -- an Arctic routing could cut down travel time by about five hours, according to Grant Wilson, Air Canada's director of aeronautical services.

Three factors contribute to the time savings. First, the total distance flown is cut down by about 300 nautical miles by going over the top of the planet, instead of around it.

Second, the plane is able to avoid a westbound flight's significant headwinds, which slow down a plane and burn costly fuel.

Finally, the fuel savings achieved by the first two factors allow the plane to fly directly to Hong Kong, without Air Canada having to make the traditional stop in Vancouver to refuel.

"It's extremely important . . . when you can give your customer more city pairs and more selections rather than going through hubs and connecting flights," Air Canada's Mr. Wilson said.

He compared the significance of polar routes with Air Canada's first twin-engine flights over the North Atlantic in the early 1980s.

Polar flights were not possible during the Cold War because they pass over Russia and China. One of the continuing challenges for airlines trying to take advantage of the routes is that China offers limited entry and exit points, reducing the time savings inherent to polar routings.

United Airlines often uses polar routes on its Chicago-Hong Kong flights, depending on the weather. In the summer, when headwinds are weak, traditional routes sometimes make more sense. And on the return flight, United almost always flies traditional routes to take advantage of tailwinds.

Polar routes could mean huge savings for the airlines. A study released in the fall determined that Air Canada could save $37-million (U.S.) a year by using polar routes for four Vancouver-based flights to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei. The savings would likely be greater on flights out of Toronto or Montreal, where conventional routes take even longer.

The study was prepared by Nav Canada, which runs Canada's civil aviation services, and the Federal Aviation Authority of Russia. It concluded that an investment of $55-million (Canadian) would allow airlines to use the routes for dozens of flights each day. Until that investment is made, only a limited number of flights can go over the polar circle.

But some observers say Canada also needs to invest in its northern search-and-rescue operations before routing planes over the Arctic. Canada's Arctic is currently serviced by the 424-Squadron based in Trenton, Ont. -- a city about as close to the equator as it is to the North Pole.

"What I foresee happening eventually is that there will be an accident," and that there would be inadequate search and rescue operations, said Peter Wilson, a pilot living in Ottawa.

Airlines say the concerns are overblown. They point out that flights from London to Vancouver already fly very far north to avoid headwinds. And polar routes are never more than two hours away from an airport, compared with some Pacific routes that can be three hours from an airport.

"At least there's a number of landing strips all across Russia, whereas if a plane goes down over the Pacific, it's rather wet," Canada 3000's Mr. Kinnear said.

A bigger concern for airlines is the challenge of maintaining communications so close to the North Pole. Airplanes usually communicate with air traffic controllers and other planes using satellites that orbit around the equator. But the curvature of the earth means planes flying too far north can't reach them.

Sid Koslow, vice-president of engineering at Nav Canada, said alternative methods of communication include high-frequency voice or data communications.

Nav Canada is keen on getting polar flights off the ground because they could represent increased revenue for the service. Airlines pay Nav Canada service charges based on how much time they spend in Canadian airspace.

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