What do you know about Helsinki? I know a little bit about it, I did a mileage run there in 2008. And I know that it is the home of Rovio, the company that created the very addictive and incredibly popular Angry Birds game. (Admit it, you own Angry Birds and have held your smartphone under the desk, playing the game, during an incredibly dull business meeting! :-))  I learned some more about Helsinki when I read the February 15 issue of American Way, the monthly magazine from American Airlines.

Every month American Way features an article by Gerard J. Arpey, the Chairman & CEO, of American Airlines. His articles are usually positive and upbeat, highlighting a new service that American is offering, or information about a new member of the oneworld alliance. If AA is offering service to a new destination, the article will mention museums, restaurants, etc.  Of course, keeping with the positive tone, he does not write about an increase in fees for carry-on luggage or labor strife with the unions.

Arpey’s column in the February 15, 2011 American Way is called Over the Top and talks about American’s new nonstop service from Chicago to Helsinki, Finland. The article does not focus on Helsinki’s restaurants or museums. Instead he brought up several points that I was not aware of that I found to be quite interesting.

I know that Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is the headquarters of Finnair, a member of the oneworld alliance. Arpey added something I did not know. “Many people don’t realize that Helsinki’s northern location — more specifically, its proximity to the North Pole — makes it a great connecting point from North America to India and much of Asia.” He’s right, I did not realize that. It’s something that does not make sense when looking at a flat map of the world, but makes total sense when you look at a globe that accurately reflects our round planet.

He goes on to say “Even those of us who rely on geography in our careers need to be reminded occasionally that our planet is indeed round — and thus the shortest distance between some points we’re used to seeing on two-dimensional maps is not left to right or right to left but rather up and down. In fact, one of Finnair’s many points of pride is the fact that way back in 1983, it introduced the first nonstop service from Europe to Japan, flying north over the polar-ice-cap region and then down the Bering Strait to Tokyo.” Another interesting fact; I would have guessed that a larger airline, maybe JAL or British Airways or Lufthansa would have been the first to offer service on that route; Finnair did not occur to me.

Arpey goes on to explain that the end of the Cold War has made it easier for airlines to offer over-the-pole service. “For most of our history, we were not allowed to fly over what was then the Soviet Union. But the end of the Cold War and the subsequent liberalization of various aviation agreements have increased our access to Russian airspace. Today we frequently fly through the polar region, most often when flying from Chicago to Shanghai, from Chicago to Beijing and from Delhi to Chicago.”

That makes sense. But I did not realize that over-the-pole routes only work well in one direction. “We are more likely to take a polar route flying from North America to Asia than on the return trip back to North America. That may seem odd to some, since the number of miles between two points obviously doesn’t change. But wind makes a big difference, and while there is relatively little wind over the Arctic Ocean, there is often a strong tailwind blowing from Asia toward North America, making a more southerly route on the return trip more advantageous.”

Here is a trivia question: does an airplane actually fly over the North Pole when taking a polar route? The answer surprised me. “By the way, because of the limitations of older navigation systems, none of the polar routes we fly crosses exactly over the North Pole. At the Pole, an airplane’s compass changes from a due-north heading to due south, and that change of course could potentially lead to problems with earlier-generation autopilot systems. Fortunately, that is not an issue with the latest generation of long-haul aircraft, such as the Boeing 777s we fly, whose source of navigation is the extremely precise Global Positioning System (GPS). Nonetheless, to make polar flying equally effortless for both the new generation and the previous generations of aircraft, none of the approved civil polar routes comes closer than about 60 nautical miles from the Pole.”

Whoever wrote this article (I suspect someone puts these together for Mr. Arpey to review and approve) deserves to be commended. He or she broke the mold and wrote an article unlike any other I had seen in American Way. I found this article to be much more interesting than most of Arpey’s article, and hope you did too!