Freezing cold with an icy environment that makes long term settlement impossible, Antarctica remains one of the most mysterious places on Earth. If you were hoping to take a look at it from the air, then you might be curious about any planes that fly over Antarctica.
For a long time, flights over Antarctica were completely prohibited. A lack of any infrastructure, including runways and airports, meant planes didn’t have the capability to pass safely above the frozen continent.
Even with improved technical capabilities, few planes try to make the trip.
Find out why planes don’t fly over Antarctica with this guide to polar routes.
Do Planes Fly Over Antarctica?
While a few Southern Hemisphere flights come close to the edges of the continent, none of them come anywhere near passing over the South Pole itself.
Most flight paths avoid passing Antarctica. If you stood on Antarctica, you’d be unlikely to see any flights go past at all, no matter how long you looked out.
There’s one main reason for this: Antarctica is uninhabited. This both makes it a safety risk, and also means there’s no real reason for any planes to divert close to Antarctica.
Things are a little different in the Arctic. Although the Arctic isn’t exactly what you’d describe as a busy destination, several flight paths do come close to the North Pole.
Why Don’t Commercial Planes Fly Over Antarctica?
There Are No Nearby Airports
All planes are subject to something known as ETOPS: the Extended-range Twin-engine Operation Performance Standard.
ETOPS determines how far an aircraft can be from the nearest airport. This will ensure that in the event of an emergency, there’s a runway for the airplane to divert towards.
The nearest airport to the South Pole is the Ushuaia International Airport in Argentina, 2,500 miles away. This is an immense distance, and falls well past the ETOPS range for many aircraft. For a long time, this prevented any attempts at Antarctic flight.
However, there are a few newer and larger crafts that have an ETOPS range that would include Antarctica and even the South Pole. However, with no infrastructure, and greatly limited facilities below, many flights still won’t take the risk.
Antarctica is one of the most unexplored, uninhabited places in the world. A big reason for this is the adverse weather conditions that prevent even researchers who visit the continent from staying there for any length of time.
But what does this have to do with airplanes?
High in the sky, airplanes have to travel through some chilly conditions anyway. But over frozen Antarctica, things are even colder.
The temperature in Antarctica hovers at around -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, and the lowest temperature ever recorded was roughly -130 degrees F. And that’s just on the ground.
During flights, airplanes have to use complicated de-icing systems to stop the buildup of ice from causing engine failure or affecting the shape of the wings. This would be even more important on a polar flight.
Antarctica is also one of the windiest places on Earth, and wind is not good for flying. Heavy winds across the continent can disrupt planned flight routes.
These weather risks also lead to reduced visibility. During storms, visibility can be completely ruined.
While navigational instruments and the onboard computer system should take care of finding the way, a lack of even lights on the ground makes Antarctica difficult to navigate. If an emergency landing was required, there’s nothing below to guide the way.
There’s No Need
Vacations in Antarctica are rare, and typically involve camping trips and getting to grips with the wild. There are no hotels, no guest houses, and nowhere to stay other than the occasional scientific base.
There’s almost no human activity at all. So, the main reason flights don’t travel over the Antarctic is — there’s just no need.
This might explain why there are no commercial flights to Antarctica, but what about passing over? Many of the flights that pass through Arctic airspace don’t stop, and instead, transport passengers between North America and Asia.
Again, there’s rarely any need to pass over Antarctica. The only flights that would really require this sort of direct route would be from Australia to South America (and vice versa).
For other journeys across the Southern Hemisphere, there’s no real flight time saved by passing over the South Pole. Rather than taking the safety risk just to cut down time in the air, they prefer to fly closer to land, where they can divert in case of emergency.
Do Any Aircraft Fly Over Antarctica?
Although you might not be able to take a commercial flight to Antarctica, that doesn’t mean no planes ever land near the South Pole.
Flights to and over Antarctica are typically for scientific researchers looking for an easier trip to the continent.
Rather than struggling through ice sheets on a ship, they can take a flight, and arrive in good time.
On other occasions, flights have been sent to Antarctica for emergency aid and to provide medical care.
Even some large, commercial airlines have passed over Antarctica. Antarctica Flights operate a sightseeing flight, which allows paying guests an opportunity to discover this rarely explored part of the world.
Originally, the Boeing 747 was used for these flights, but they’re now conducted by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This day trip polar flight is expensive, but a rare opportunity to witness this wild continent.
Some flights might not travel directly over Antarctica, but they do brush the coastline of the massive continent.
The route between Sydney and Johannesburg comes quite close, but there’s no reason to divert across the land mass itself. And flights from Sydney to Santiago or Buenos Aires can also skirt the edges of the continent.
Sometimes, wind conditions will force them further inland. However, none of these flights have any reason to go close to the pole itself.
Antarctica is one of the quietest places on Earth, and that includes the airspace. Flights to this polar region are almost non-existent, and only a few run every year.
And aircraft crossing from Australia to South America prefer to take safer routes, closer to emergency airports and runways.