Antarctica was the last explored continent due to the treacherous seas and nearly impenetrable ice guarding the frozen land mass. However, human exploration of the continent has always been of interest to the world’s nations. While many nations claim a piece of Antarctica for themselves, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 has banned military activity, new claims on Antarctic soil or any dumping of nuclear waste. The treaty encourages nations to cooperate on scientific research and preserving the continent’s fragile ecosystem.
Antarctic tourism has also increased in recent years. While planes have flown over Antarctica for many years, private tours have also allowed people to explore Antarctica by foot. However, the recent landing of a Boeing 757 on Union Glacier has raised the question: can people fly to Antarctica directly? Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, highest, windiest and driest continent, all of which pose challenges to commercial air travel in the area. Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), alongside Icelandic airline Loftleidir Icelandic and NAS Corporation Limited have been planning for seven months to land a commercial airliner on Antarctic soil.
The Boeing 757 landed on blue ice, namely because runways in Antarctica are currently unfeasible (and even if it could be paved, runways are terrible conductors of heat and would require great amounts of resources to keep them ice-free). Blue ice occurs when snow falls on a glacier, gets compressed, then becomes part of the glacier. Blue ice in the Antarctic indicates no net addition or subtraction of snow, and is generally counteracted by sublimation (the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase without having to become a liquid). Blue ice allows commercial aircraft equipped with wheels to land without skidding, and is currently used as runways for cargo and military jets.
“ALE is researching the potential for utilizing conventional passenger airliners in addition to passenger/cargo combination aircraft,”said a press release by Adventure Network International, a subsidiary of ALE. “The Boeing 757-200 ER, fitted with 62 business class seats, will enhance passenger comfort yet maintain the safety of ALE’s activities and aircraft resources.”
ALE organizes trips to Mt. Vinson, the highest point in Antarctica, as well as the geographic South Pole. The company also takes tourists to observe penguins in the Weddell Sea. ALE transports 400-500 people during the Antarctic tourist season (October-March), and supports scientific research in Antarctica alongside the transport of tourists.
While this wasn’t the first commercial airplane to land in Antarctica (a 2008 attempt by an Australian group was the first), it could serve as a catalyst to increased tourism on the remote land. Although the Antarctic Treaty does not specifically ban tourism, it does require companies to have a permit to visit Antarctica and for tourists to respect the Antarctic environment and any ongoing scientific research underway on the continent.
ALE, however, plans to abide by those goals—increasing tourism while minimizing the impact on the environment. “ALE’s goal has always been to deliver once in a lifetime experiences for each guest, while upholding the highest safety and environmental standards. By extending the range of aircraft that can be used to support visitors and scientific research, ALE also expands its evacuation capabilities, further ensuring safe and environmentally responsible operations.”