Do Planes Fly Over The Pacific Ocean?

If you have ever looked at flight plans for commercial planes flying between the USA and Japan, you may have noticed that they don’t tend to take a direct route over the Pacific ocean.

But why could this be? Surely, the straightest route is the safest and most economical option for any airline, right?

Do Planes Fly Over The Pacific Ocean?

Wrong. There are actually very sound mathematical and scientific reasons why planes flying between the USA and Asia do not tend to fly over the Pacific Ocean, and in this article, we unpack them for you.

The key reasons include safety, fuel efficiency, distance, and time-saving. Let’s take a closer look.

How Big Is The Pacific Ocean?

When you look at a flat map of the world, it is clear to see that the most direct path between the United States of America and East Asia is over the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific is the largest ocean on the planet, covering more than half the Earth’s surface.

In fact, it spans 60 million square miles from China to California, and in certain parts, this ocean extends tens of thousands of feet deep.

To grasp just how epic the Pacific is, if you joined all of the Earth’s landmasses together, this ocean would still be bigger!

Bearing all this in mind, it seems mad for commercial flights to choose to fly around the edge of this huge watery expanse, rather than straight over it.

What Route Do Planes Fly Between The US And Asia?

Most commercial airlines do not fly directly over the pacific ocean when traveling between The United States and East Asia. Instead, they fly in a curved path, which takes them north over Canada, Alaska, and Russia.

For example, a commercial plane traveling from San Francisco to Tokyo does not fly straight across the Pacific ocean, but skirts around the northern edge of the ocean in a curved route, hugging the shorelines of Canada and Russia, before landing in Japan.

Many Flights from the east coast of America, like JFK or EWR, towards Hong Kong and China, take the polar route.

This is a flight path that leads them over the Arctic and North Pole, before heading back down towards Asia. Many Flights to India also take this polar route.

Why Don’t Commercial Planes Fly Over The Pacific Ocean?

There are several reasons why commercial airlines tend to avoid flying directly over the Pacific ocean. The main factors include:

* Shorter Distance and Time

* Improved Fuel Efficiency

* Improved Safety

Let’s look at each of them in a little more detail…

Curved Routes Are Shorter Than Straight Routes:

Believe it or not, flying in a curved route around the north of the Pacific rather than straight across it, amounts to the shortest route.

It seems counterintuitive to us because we are used to looking at the world on flat surfaces in textbooks and maps.

Actually, because the globe is round, the shortest distance for air travel between one point and another is not the straight line but in an arc that accounts for the curvature of the earth.

You can test this out by measuring the distance between San Francisco and Tokyo on a classroom globe using a piece of string.

Hold one end of the string on San Francisco and draw the string in a straight line to Tokyo, and mark the distance on the string with a pen.

Then, bend the string in a slight curve and mark the distance again. You will see that the curved route is always shorter than the straight routes!

Shorter Routes Mean Faster Flight:

Of course, shorter flight routes mean faster flight times, which is better for passengers and for fuel efficiency.

For example, to get from Los Angeles to Tokyo, if you were to fly straight through the middle of the Pacific, you would need to spend about 12 hours in the air.

However, if you flew along the northern edge of the Pacific, you could shave off almost half of your flight time.

In fact, if you took the shortest possible route, you would only need 6 hours to reach Tokyo.

This is important because fuel efficiency is measured by how many gallons of jet fuel you use per hour.

By taking the shortest route possible, you can save on fuel costs.

Improved Fuel Efficiency Means Less Cost Per Passenger:

Another primary reason airplanes don’t fly direct flight routes over the Pacific is that they want to keep their ticket prices as low as possible. Flying in a curved route allows them to do just that.

By flying along the northern edge of Asia instead of the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they can reduce the amount of fuel required by up to 50%. And since less fuel is needed, they can sell tickets at lower rates.

Flying Over Open Ocean Risks Aviation Safety:

Air travel is pretty safe and reliable these days, however, it is always safer for a commercial airplane to fly over (or near) to land so that they have the option of landing on solid ground should they so need to.

If the weather changes or the engine fails, planes traveling near to land can contact airports and arrange to make an emergency landing. They can also land to refuel should they need to.

However, during a nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean, there is no landmass for miles and miles.

A plane that found itself in trouble would have to perform an emergency landing on the water, which is much more risky and difficult for the pilot. 

Do Any Planes Fly Over The Pacific Ocean?

Yes! Of course, some airlines have no choice but to fly over the Pacific. If you are flying to or from Hawaii, for example, you have no other option but to take a transpacific flight.

Other flights that go over the Pacific include those between the US and Australia and New Zealand.  

When Was The First Transpacific Flight?

The first transpacific flight was made in 1919 when American Airlines flew from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. It was a non-stop flight lasting 14 hours and 40 minutes.

What Is The Future Of Transpacific Flight?

In 2016, a solar-powered plane flown by 2 pilots, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, completed a daring journey across the Pacific Ocean.

They landed in Mountain View, California, having left Honolulu, Hawaii three days before! The fact that they managed to complete this trip across such a huge expanse of ocean (without any fuel!) set new records for aviation and showed the world just what might be possible for the future of transpacific flight!

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has answered your question in full — Yes, some airlines charter flights over the Pacific ocean, but only if they have no other choice.

Given the option, airlines would much rather charter a course that skirts around the edge of this great ocean, as, in many cases, it’s faster, cheaper, and safer than flying directly over the undulant blue expanse of the Pacific.

Jacob Stern
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