Finnair takes North Pole detour to avoid Russia

The Finnish carrier's Helsinki-Tokyo route skirts Russian airspace by traveling across the pole.

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - March 14, 2022
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Finnish flag carrier Finnair is using a polar route between Helsinki and Tokyo to avoid Russian airspace. (Thomas Nilsen / The Independent Barents Observer)

The Finnish flag carrier is the Nordic airline with most long-haul flights to Asia. As Moscow’s reciprocal ban barred most European airlines from flying over Russian airspace, Finnair has to chose new detour routes to destinations like Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo.

“The flights to Northeast Asia are tough ones to replan, as the detour around Russia makes the flights so much longer,” says Perttu Jolma, head of Finnair’s traffic planning team.

“Depending on the winds, we fly either the southern or northern way around Russia to Japan,” he explains.

The northern route goes from Helsinki via Finnish Lapland to Norway’s easternmost town, Kirkenes, only a few kilometers from the Russian border. Then across the Barents Sea, over Svalbard and the North Pole towards Alaska, before the last leg across the sea to Tokyo. For now, all Finnair’s flights to Osaka are cancelled until the end of April.

[Canada, Nordic countries close air space to Russian aviation]

While normal flight time to Tokyo is 9.5-10 hours, it now takes around 13 hours depending on directions.

“The longer flight time impacts the flights’ financials a great deal, increasing fuel costs, crew costs and navigation costs,” Perttu explains.

Finnair is for now the only European airline flying the North Pole route.

Back in 1983 the airliner was the first to fly non-stop from Europe to Japan, flying over the North Pole, so operating in the polar region is not new to Finnair. The North Pole route hasn’t been used by European airlines flying to Northeast Asia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Russia opened its airspace corridor over Siberia for Western airlines.