Flying over the Pacific Ocean is avoided by most airlines for most flights because it usually doesn’t make sense to fly over it when shorter and safer routes exist.
The Pacific Ocean is also more remote and less safe than the Indian and Atlantic Oceans to fly over, resulting in a higher chance of a plane crashing.
While there are exceptions, most airlines, as part of their operations, don’t fly over the Pacific Ocean.
Table of Contents
- 1 4 Reasons Why Planes Don’t Fly Over the Pacific Ocean
- 2 How Safe is it to Fly Over the Pacific Ocean?
- 3 2 Exceptions to Planes Flying Over the Pacific Ocean
- 4 ETOPS Regulations and Transpacific Flights
- 5 Weather Mitigation on Transpacific Flights
4 Reasons Why Planes Don’t Fly Over the Pacific Ocean
Most commercial airlines, that operate between East Asia and the Americas, do not fly over the Pacific Ocean because of cost and safety concerns, including turbulent weather, which can be dangerous to fly over.
This isn’t the only reason planes don’t fly over the Pacific Ocean, though.
1. Distance Consideration
Airlines prefer flying over “curved” routes over land instead of traversing oceans. Curved routes over land are generally shorter than straight routes over the ocean.
When a plane flies from the United States to Japan, for example, it’d have the shortest, and most fuel-efficient, flight from flying over a curved route over Canada and Alaska.
The concept of curved routes can be difficult to understand on a flat map, but it soon becomes clear if you look at a globe map.
2. Cost and Time Savings
Curved routes also help reduce flight operating costs, thereby reducing ticket prices for consumers and keeping air travel more affordable.
Choosing to not fly over the Pacific Ocean saves airlines both fuel and time, which ultimately increases airlines’ profitability and is great for passengers who pay less money for tickets and spend less time in a plane.
From a practical standpoint, it makes sense for all airlines operating in East Asia and the Americas to not fly over the Pacific Ocean.
3. Weather Patterns
Most flights are planned to minimize the time spent over bodies of water, since storms are more likely to occur over water than land.
The weather over the Pacific Ocean is often turbulent, and there are many thunderstorms in parts of the Pacific, so it’s not a safe environment to fly a plane.
Routes overland from Canada and Alaska are preferred for most flights from the Americas to East Asia since the weather there is calmer. The Pacific Ocean is just not ideal for air travel.
4. Jet Streams
Another reason why planes don’t fly over the Pacific Ocean is due to jet streams, which are a set of air currents that circle the Earth several miles above the planet’s surface.
These air currents predominantly flow West to East because of the Earth’s rotation.
Flying in the same direction as a jet stream can save time and fuel for an aircraft, but flying against one causes dangerous turbulence and potential damage to an aircraft.
The Polar Jet Stream path goes overland Canada and Alaska, which is the same route most flights in that region take.
How Safe is it to Fly Over the Pacific Ocean?
When flying over a vast body of water, like the Pacific Ocean, there is no safe place for an emergency landing.
So, in that aspect, it isn’t safe to fly over the Pacific Ocean.
Rescuers would stand very little chance of tracking down and rescuing members of a plane that crashed in the Pacific Ocean, assuming anyone onboard somehow even managed to survive such a crash landing in the first place.
Most airlines therefore prefer to fly over land for this reason, as it’s safer to crash land on solid ground, preferably near an airport where emergency services are available.
2 Exceptions to Planes Flying Over the Pacific Ocean
1. Transpacific Flights
A transpacific flight is when an aircraft flies across the Pacific Ocean from either Asia or Australia to the Americas or vice versa.
Transpacific flights are not as common as transatlantic ones, but transpacific flights have been commercially available since the 1930s.
The Boeing 747 is one of the major planes used in transpacific flights because of its large passenger capacity and fuel efficiency, which allow it to fly continuously over the Pacific Ocean.
Thanks to recent innovations in aviation technology, even twin-engine planes are sometimes used for commercial transpacific flights.
Aircraft like the Airbus A320, Boeing 737, and Boeing 787 are also all increasingly used for transpacific flights. Most of these planes fly to destinations like Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.
2. Pacific Ocean Countries
Of course, when flying from or to countries and regions that are located in the Pacific Ocean, such as New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu etc. there is no avoiding the Pacific Ocean.
ETOPS Regulations and Transpacific Flights
Historically, twin-engine aircraft were restricted in terms of the distances they could fly over water routes, including transoceanic flights like those over the Pacific Ocean.
This was primarily due to safety concerns, such as if one engine failed, the plane needed to be within a certain range of an alternate airport for a safe diversion.
However, due to advancements in aviation technology, engine reliability, and safety procedures, this has resulted in the development of aircraft that can operate safely on a single engine for extended periods.
ETOPS regulations were then introduced to reflect these improvements and provide a framework for extending the permissible distances for twin-engine aircraft over water.
ETOPS-certified aircraft receive ETOPS ratings, which are typically denoted as ETOPS-120, ETOPS-180, ETOPS-240, etc, with the number indicating the maximum duration, in minutes, that an aircraft can fly on a single engine away from an alternate airport.
For example, an ETOPS-180 rating means the aircraft can fly for up to 180 minutes (3 hours) on one engine.
ETOPS regulations have therefore significantly expanded the options for airlines operating transpacific flights.
Weather Mitigation on Transpacific Flights
Adverse weather patterns, including turbulence, thunderstorms, and severe weather conditions are more prevalent over large bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean.
Thankfully, modern aviation technology and weather mitigation strategies have significantly reduced the risks of flying over the Pacific Ocean.
- Weather Radar Systems: Aircraft are equipped with sophisticated weather radar systems that allow pilots to detect and monitor weather patterns in real-time, so to identify areas of turbulence, precipitation, and severe storms.
- In-Flight Weather Data: Aircraft are connected to meteorological services that provide up-to-date weather information during the flight. This data includes weather forecasts, radar images, and reports from other aircraft in the vicinity, which pilots can use to make route adjustments as needed to avoid turbulent areas.
Related: Related: What Do Pilots Do On Long Flights?
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.