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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia to Cash In on Polar Air Route

Russian aviation officials see a record-breaking cross-polar flight that opened Hong Kong's gargantuan new airport Monday as not just a publicity stunt, but a major step in search of that ever-elusive Russian goal -- cash revenue.

For airlines, the 15 1/2 hour Cathay Pacific flight which took off from New York, popped over the North Pole, then came down through Russia to Asia means saving lay-over costs and five hours of flight time.

For Russia, the planes flying over Siberia's vast expanses signify money in the form of navigational fees -- about $60 per 100 kilometers, depending on the weight of the plane, one expert said. Those fees can add up. Northwest Airlines, just one of several companies considering flying the new routes, currently has 150 flights to Asia per week from nine U.S. cities.

And the wealth, if all works according to plan, gets shared with the regions over which the airlines fly. That potential prompted Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed to take part in an earlier promotional flight by Transaero last week from Krasnoyarsk to New York.

But before the money can start coming in, airline officials have to iron out one small detail -- ensuring that the air traffic control systems scattered throughout Siberia are coordinating with each other.

Both the Cathay Pacific and Transaero flights were one-shot deals while the Russian government finishes 17 months of demonstrational flights on four different routes.

"There's still a good deal of work to be done before we can start regularly-scheduled service," said Peter Lanslow, Cathay Pacific's vice president for Canadian operations. He added that the airline planned scheduled operations on the route by the second half of next year.

Demo flights will show potential gaps and problems in the communication and navigational controls, said Dennis Cooper, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's representative responsible for the CIS.

"These are brand-new routes," said Cooper, speaking by telephone from Brussels. "They've never been flown before so there's a lot of air traffic control procedures that need to be worked out."

Some improvements to local infrastructure may be needed so that regional controllers can handle aircraft with more advanced navigational systems, Cooper said.

"Most of what needs to be done is with coordination of existing centers out there," he said.

But when the wrinkles are ironed out, the financial prospects of flying trans-Siberia will also benefit the airlines. "Fuel is our second biggest expense after labor," said Doug Killian, director of international communications for Northwest Airlines. "It costs around a quarter of a million dollars to fly a plane round-trip from the U.S. to Asia. ... Most of that is fuel."