Suppose that you have to connect two destinations like Phoenix and Anchorage, which are 5850km apart. Now, you have two choices: to either fly over the land, or completely fly over Bering Sea (Arctic Ocean). So, what would be the better route to choose? Currently, the route is partially over the sea and partially over the land.

Also, this is just a case, in general out of land and sea, which route is preferred? One common argument is that you are safer by flying over land in case of an emergency, but are there any aerodynamic concerns also involved?

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    $\begingroup$ A flight from Phoenix to Anchorage will not fly over Bering Sea, as it is a lot more on the West. The example flight I found stays over ground most of the time. I think the actual answer to your question will be that considering the factors applied (weather, political situation etc.), the flight will always choose the shortest, most economical route. $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 18:11

2 Answers 2


At the cruising altitude of most airliners, there is no noticeable aerodynamic difference between being over land or over sea. At lower levels, being over sea would typically offer less turbulence, in part because as the ground warms you can encounter rising air thermals.

Generally, airliners fly whatever route provides the shortest time, which is not always the shortest distance, often called the Great Circle route. The GC route is not always quickest because of jetstream winds.

One thing to consider when choosing between an over-land or over-sea route is the distance to another airport should an engine fail. You might have heard of ETOPS. Basically, twin engined aircraft must fly within a certain distance of a suitable landing site - often 2 or 3 hours of flying time on one engine. In the middle of the ocean the quickest route may take the aircraft outside of this range, so it will have to fly closer to land, or even in certain remote parts of the world, still over land.

Another consideration is life rafts. They are legally required when flying more than 25 miles (if I recall correctly) out to sea. Life rafts add weight and therefore cost so some airlines have actually removed life rafts from their aircraft, or at least only have a few of their jets allocated for flights over water.

  • $\begingroup$ Life rafts or life vests? The later, sure, but you can't remove life rafts from most aircraft since the evacuation slides double as life rafts in most of them. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I suppose so, but according to that article the 737s are capable of having them removed. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 2:39

The ususally preferred path will be the shortest, as any additional km flown will require extra fuel.

For the example you propose we can look at what companies actually do (US653 of 5 July 2015):

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As you can observe they fly pretty close to the great circle passing through the two airports, meaning that they will fly partially over the ocean.

This poses no additional risks, as the shoreline is never really far away and in case of emergency an alternate airport will most likely always be within reach.


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