The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line. Only a fool will deny that.
One would think that when a plane takes off from the airport, it will follow a straight line to reach its destination. Well, make that a slightly curved line because the Earth is a sphere. But, you get the idea. A straight line bent into a curve to follow the shape of the Earth. Fast and uncomplicated. After all, unlike land vehicles which have to stay on roads whether they are straight, winding or full of U-turns, there are no physical roads in the sky.
The truth is, planes pretty much fly the same way that vehicles travel overland. The “highways in the sky” may be invisible but they are there. And planes have to use these highways accordingly not necessarily for safety nor any similar concern. It’s politics and money. And it’s damn infuriating.
The truth about plane routes and airspace use
The territory of a state includes not only land (and what lies beneath its surface) but also waters around it and the sky above it.
“Sovereign airspace” is the term to denote the part of the sky above the state’s territory over which it has control. There are five classes of airspace but, for brevity, sovereign airspace only extends to the height where airplanes fly. Beyond that, it’s free for all.
Countries charge fees to allow planes (yes, including commercial flights) to allow them to fly over sovereign airspace.
Let’s say you’re on a flight from Portugal bound for Hungary. To get to its destination, the plane has to fly over the sovereign airspace of all the countries between Portugal and Hungary. That means Spain and France (for sure), Switzerland or Italy, and Austria or Slovenia. To be allowed to fly over all those countries, the airline company must pay a “toll fee” to each country for every flight. The price is calculated based on the size and weight of the plane.
That sounds unnecessary, I know. It’s not like a highway on land that must be maintained so motorists are required to pay toll to continuously raise funds for the maintenance. Up in the sky, countries don’t build highways. There’s just air up there. And yet, countries exact payment for international flights to be allowed to pass through that empty space.
If you don’t know it yet, the airspace “toll fees” that airline companies pay are passed on to air travelers. You won’t see it in the breakdown of fees you pay but it’s there.
The United States gets the lion’s share of airspace “toll fees”
Again, if you don’t know it yet, the United States claims control over an “administrative airspace” that covers a far larger area than the sky above its territorial lands and waters. This “administrative airspace” includes a huge part of the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.
So, if you fly from Manila to Mexico City, the plane passes through this “administrative airspace” and the airline company pays the United States a fee even if the plane flew nowhere near the United States.
How the heck that happened, I have no idea. Arbitrary? Of course. Unjust? Of course. Bullshit? Oh, yes, of course. When colonialism went out of fashion, it was replaced by neo-colonialism. If you’re a country with plenty of fire power, you somehow get to call the shots.
When airspace “toll fees” aren’t enough
In some cases, payment of the ridiculous airspace “toll fees” isn’t enough to allow a commercial flight to fly over a country’s sovereign airspace. When two countries are at odds with each other, for instance, one can deny use of its airspace to the other.
And that brings me to the matter of what the heck actually happened with our flight from Manila to Hanoi.
The flight was delayed. Our plane was number 15 in the runway queue so we had to wait for out turn. We took off shortly after 11.30 p.m., more than an hour after the scheduled take-off.
The monitors were lowered to apprise passengers about the details of the flight. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just to make sure that my eyes weren’t playing tricks (I was sleepy), I took photos.
The plane did not take the shortest path to Hanoi
If the plane had taken the shortest path, it would have flown over Hainan, an island province of China known mostly for its luxury resorts. But it didn’t fly over Hainan.
The plane flew below the Paracel Islands (controlled by China but claimed by both Taiwan and Vietnam) to the coast of central Vietnam. From there all the way to Hanoi in the north, the plane stayed near the Vietnamese coastline.
The good news was that, visually, it wasn’t such a boring flight because we could enjoy the flickering lights from Vietnam’s coastal towns through the plane’s window.
The bad news was that the strange path resulted in a longer flight. And a longer flight means time lost and more fuel usage — the latter, of course, the airline passes on to the passengers.
Are PAL flights not destined for any city in China prohibited from flying over Chinese airspace?
What was the plane avoiding that it had to take such a strange path from Manila to Hanoi? Jet streams? Or was the strange path political in nature?
Are PAL flights to northern Vietnam prohibited from flying over Chinese airspace?
The Philippines, China and Vietnam are embroiled in a long-standing feud about who owns the waters that had long been referred to as South China Sea but which, in the past decade or so, the Philippines has started calling the West Philippine Sea. The feud also includes several island groups in the area.
The funny thing is that Philippine Airlines has direct flights to at least six cities in mainland China including Beijing and Shanghai. So, PAL is not banned from using Chinese airspace. But if the flight is to another country and merely passing through China, its airspace is taboo?
P. S. And in case you’re wondering… Yes, the flight from Hanoi to Manila took the same path. Just in reverse.