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To shave time off long-haul flights, airlines eye North Pole

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You might call them an "over the top" solution to the problems of really long international flights: Carriers are introducing polar air routes on long hauls such as Toronto-Hong Kong.

Transpolar routes minimize distance, headwinds, and therefore fuel requirements - and this means savings of time and money for airlines and their passengers. Five hours are shaved off a Toronto-Hong Kong run when it goes over the North Pole, for instance.

But what happens in case of an emergency at the top of the world? Is the Arctic ready for the increased risk that, statistically speaking, accompanies an increase in transpolar commercial air traffic?

It's something that Peter Wilson, a commercial pilot and geographer, has thought about a lot. In his work mapping the Arctic for the Nunavut Planning Commission, he has crisscrossed the far north countless times by air. The views are spectacular, he says, but "my mind never wanders far from the thought: 'What would happen if we had to make a forced landing here?' "

He has been something of a voice crying in the wilderness on the subject of Arctic air safety. His concern is that Canadian search and rescue (SAR) resources are deployed too far south to get to an emergency site in the far north fast enough. With increased transpolar traffic by widebodied commercial jets, he says, it's only a matter of time before Canada's rescue capability is put to the test.

"These accidents are survivable," he says "But waiting for rescue is not."

The incident on his mind - and the minds of emergency-response planners in the Department of National Defense - is the October 1991 crash of a Hercules transport aircraft near Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, in what is now the territory of Nunavut. Eighteen people were aboard, and 14 of them survived the crash itself.

But it took two days to rescue the survivors, and in the interim, an additional life was lost. Their efforts were hampered by, among other things, lack of a crew qualified in night vision - critical at that time of the year that far north.

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