Iceland is looking to position itself as an indispensable Arctic nation, in particular as a hub for the growing number of cross-polar cargo flights. Every year, 15,000 flights cross the polar region as they travel between Asia and North America, and that number is expected to increase by 17% next year. “No cross-polar flights have yet begun from Iceland, but I think it’s just a matter of time before flights begin from Keflavík across the Pole, because it shortens the route considerably to China, Korea and Japan,” said Ásgeir Pálsson, director of the air navigation services division at Icelandic airport operator Isavia, at the Arctic Circle conference held over the weekend in Reykjavik.
The cross-polar route can be up to three hours shorter than the conventional route around the Northern Hemisphere. Therefore, Ásgeir expects the new route to result in substantial fuel savings and decreased emissions, while increasing efficiency and income for Iceland.
In the future, Ásgeir predicts thar cargo planes will be unmanned. “Those kinds of flights are easiest to do over the Pole ― long-range flights in well- organized air space, where not much is underneath, dense population or anything like that.” He added that the technology already exists, and that “Iceland could play a role by having such planes come into Keflavík straight from Asia; then the goods could be distributed from there, either by cargo flight or by a combined passenger/cargo flight.”
That idea is no longer far-fetched. Last week, in fact, for the first time ever a 10-meter wide pilotless plane (controlled by civilian professionals on the ground) flew alongside a commercial aircraft in the U.K., in an officially-approved demonstration. According to the Statesman, aircraft manufacturers have been working on the development of unmanned planes for years but are hampered by aviation rules that ban them from flying in airspace alongside conventional aircraft. However, this successful flight could herald the introduction of unmanned cargo flights from British airports within a few years, following many more trials. And Iceland could be next.
Furthermore, eventually scaling up these unmanned cross-polar cargo flights would have two other advantages. Most importantly, if things go wrong, there wouldn’t be any lives on the aircraft placed in jeopardy. As a bonus, without having to provide room for people, the planes could be packed entirely with cargo, increasing their carrying capacities.
As the Arctic warms and becomes more open to shipping of all kinds, there exist first-mover advantages. But even if Iceland succeeds in making itself a cross-polar cargo hub, sooner or later it will have plenty of competition.