Why Don’t Planes Fly Over the Pacific Ocean

Airlines · 4 min read · May 06, 2022
why don t planes fly over the pacific ocean

Virtually every one of us at least once in life has checked these curved flight routes which public flight tracking platforms are displaying in real-time.

Yet, the more you look into historical flight data – either on the same platforms or anywhere else, the more likely you are about to ask one of the most obvious questions which could arise in such a situation – why don’t planes fly over the Pacific?

As obvious as it may seem, in reality, such a question is rather a bit complex. So is the answer.

And why is that?

That is mainly because the question itself is not exactly correct. In fact, planes do fly over the pacific ocean.

That is actually quite obvious even when analyzing the real-time positions of some commercial planes on the same flight tracking websites.

But it looks like most commercial airlines are taking detours just to avoid the Pacific ocean, aren’t they?

Not exactly. If you looked closely at any such flight path on a flat map, you’d see that it looks like most commercial airlines are taking curved routes above the land instead of straight-line which would go over the Pacific ocean.

Yet, actually, that is just an impression you would get when looking at the flattened map of the Earth, which, in fact, is not flat at all.

Yes, the Earth is round, so what?

Actually, you can say that Earth is round in some context, for example, when using some kind of domestic speech. But, precisely, our planet is an irregularly shaped ellipsoid.

Which, again, is round – but not perfectly round. However, you of course already know that, so let’s get back to the curved path between two not exactly the same locations somewhere not far from the shores of the Indian ocean.

So planes do not fly over the Pacific, or do they?

As a matter of fact, a lot of planes do fly over the Pacific ocean both on visually curved routes – as well as doing some perfectly straight routes.

While a minority of flights take routes connecting two locations on the continent shore over the ocean, there would be simply no other way to get out from an island there for both private planes and those operated by commercial airlines.

Flying over the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii, USA to Sydney, Australia on a cloudy evening.

But why does it look like most flights are taking curved routes like they are avoiding flying over the Pacific ocean?

That is because any curved route you see on the flight map is actually the shortest route. In fact, it looks like a curved route only on a flat map – in real life, it is actually a straight route.

Such kind of visual distortion occurs when you try to make flat maps of something that is round in shape. Or try to depict an irregularly shaped ellipsoid in such a way, namely, as a two-dimensional image.

So what?

Even the straightest route over the Pacific ocean which one – especially not well familiar with aviation, let alone, for example, a concept of the jet stream – could imagine when looking at the flattered map of the Earth, in real life would be extremely long.

That’s because extra equatorial width (which is more than a real issue when at least planning to fly over the Pacific ocean) makes such travel significantly longer compared to the one taken closer to the Earth poles.

But it still looks like sometimes such a curved route above the land isn’t actually depicting the shortest distance

Of course, planes, which should be as efficient as they can on most flights – even those belonging to commercial airlines, do not always fly the shortest routes.

At least, those who are physically shorter.

And they do so for a number of reasons

Firstly, it could not necessarily be a commercial flight you see on the flight tracking platform. Even the planes belonging to commercial airlines from time to time perform, for example, test flights (which usually involve flying without any passengers), flight routes of which could be very weird compared to the shortest routes between two locations they usually stick to.

While most of the time such planes fly over the land, often even on the straight routes connecting some major airfields, you could sometimes see that such planes fly over the Pacific ocean.

And that does not necessarily mean they are performing trainings of some emergency landings.

A jetBlue aircraft emergency landing at LAX.
Image source: Andrewmarino

Any other reasons?

Saving time (and even taking into account some other not-so-major factors, such as jet streams or flying in unforeseen conditions) isn’t the only reason planes, and, subsequently, commercial airlines are not flying over the Pacific ocean a lot.

Not only to save time, fuel, and subsequently – a lot of operating expenses by choosing the shortest path, but also due to security concerns – and sometimes even legal requirements for such an air travel (for example, an ability to perform an emergency landing – even, in places such remote as Solomon islands or Espiritu Santo), air carriers must take all the flight planning steps correctly.

A flight path over the Pacific ocean of a flight heading from San Francisco to Sydney

What does that mean?

That means having a complete study of different weather patterns, and being aware not only of the Earth’s rotation (which gradually affects air currents and a lot of other factors crucial for performing safe flights) – but even of the clear air turbulence.

Not to mention having comprehensive knowledge about virtually any jet stream there is a need to be aware.

When taking all of that into account, flying over the Pacific ocean isn’t actually very safe compared to performing a commercial flight over land.

So which planes do fly over the Pacific ocean?

In short, such airplanes have no other path to fly. It could be intercontinental flights departing – or headed to – Australia, or those connecting Pacific islands with each other. Or any continental destination.

Performing usual flights by flying over the Pacific ocean is a common practice on such routes as, for example, flights from Honolulu to Los Angeles, from Sydney to San Francisco – or, for example, flights from Vanuatu to Futuna Island.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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