Around the world with Finnair and JAL

Finnair has found a niche in connecting northern Europe with Asia: The great circle from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda is almost 6000 miles, and a stop in Helsinki adds just 50 miles to that. Unfortunately, the closure of Russian airspace adds several hours to a flight between Finland and Japan – but it also revived a piece of aviation history: the polar route.

On such an itinerary planes head not east, but west – travelling over Svalbard, Greenland and the extreme north of Canada before threading between Russia and Alaska to reach the Pacific; Finnair has a great article on how they revived this approach. I was hopeful that I could experience this historic route – pioneered in my birth year – on my way to Tokyo.

But whilst it is an option, it is not a necessity, with weather conditions ultimately dictating the best direction of travel. From obsessive monitoring of FlightRadar I was doubtful, with only one polar flight in the week prior to my departure. Sure enough, on the day we instead set off to the south, tracing a path through the Baltics, Eastern Europe, the Black and Caspian seas, various ‘stans and then China.


For some reason it had never occurred to me that Japan Airlines – my choice for the return leg – would use anything other than a similar Asian/European routing on their way to Finland. So you can imagine my delight when, an hour or so into the flight, I consulted the moving map and realised we were no closer to Helsinki than when we started, having flown northeast!

That meant I would be achieving my goal of flying a polar route after all – and through that, another, of travelling around the world. There are – of course – arguments over what constitutes a true circumnavigation of the globe, with minimum distances or passing through antipodal points often suggested as requirements. This was even the basis of a season of Jet Lag: The Game! But the Circumnavigators Club – the only society I could find tracking such claims – is satisfied with a journey such as mine, crossing all lines of longitude in a consistent direction:

My flights around the world (click through for interactive)