Confusion over helicopter use in the Arctic | Polarjournal
The bone of contention is a report in which Quark Expeditions with its new expedition ship “Ultramarine” is portrayed as offering helicopter flights over Svalbard. However, this in no way the case. Image: Quark Expeditions

Polar tourism has been on the rise for decades. This has spurred more and more shipping companies and operators to expand their operations to the Arctic, among other places. However, this is also accompanied by an increasing range of activities. This also includes the use of helicopters for so-called “flightseeing” tours. Ever a hot potato, an article published by the Norwegian news platform “The Independent Barents Observer” on August 27 has now caused some confusion. Because in the article about helicopter flights over Svalbard two companies are mentioned by name and one of them is the traditional company Quark Expeditions.

The article lists that one of the two companies, Scenic Cruises, had applied to the Sysselmester, the administrative authority on Svalbard, for permission to use helicopters (and submarines) aboard their cruise ship Scenic Eclipse. This was immediately rejected by the authorities, according to The Independent Barents Observer. The other company explicitly mentioned in the article is Quark Expeditions, an expedition tour company operating in the Arctic for over 30 years. The news portal report implies that Quark plans to use the helicopters aboard the new expedition ship Ultramarine for flights over the archipelago in the future. The article doesn’t write until further down that this is not on the list of planned activities for the upcoming 2022 Arctic season, but it does list Greenland as a destination for so-called “flightseeing” after that. PolarJournal wanted to know what was really behind it and had explicitly asked Quark.

“Quark Expeditions has never planned the deployment of helicopters around Svalbard, or discussed/proposed such plans to the local government there.”

Alex McNeil, Director Expeditions Experience and Innovation, Quark Expeditions
For guests, helicopter flights are highlights of polar travel. Hardly anyone misses the chance to see the white world from above. Nevertheless, safety for the environment and guests is always a priority for all providers. Image: Sam Crimmin

Alex McNeil, the expedition products division manager responsible for the new offerings, wrote in an email to PolarJournal, “Quark Expeditions has never planned to use helicopters around Svalbard or discussed/suggested such plans to the local government there. The regulations restricting commercial helicopter use are well known to Quark, as we have operated extensively in Svalbard for decades.” In fact, even in the future, Sysselmester is unlikely to deviate from its current policy of using helicopters for tourist purposes over Svalbard. In Greenland, on the other hand, helicopters have long been used as a means of transport for tourists as well. The use over Greenland, which has been communicated by Quark Expeditions for a long time, has been checked by the company in the most accurate way. Guests will not only be able to take sightseeing flights with helicopters, but will also be transported to certain places for hikes and thus experience regions of the island that have remained closed to them until now. Quark is planning a similar use in the Canadian Arctic, where helicopters also have a long tradition.

The use of helicopters for tourist purposes on board expedition ships is nothing new. In Antarctica, the flying machines are used to reach the northernmost emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill and also to reach more distant sites (example: Dry Valleys). Also in the Arctic, Quark Expeditions has been conducting scenic flights aboard the 50 Years of Victory helicopters on its North Pole voyages for years, conditions permitting. “Quark has used helicopters since the first trip 30 years ago to improve the safety of our expeditions and the experience of our guests,” says Alex McNeil. “Our ethos is to go beyond, to take people to places that are difficult to access and reveal the wonders of the polar regions through exploration and education. Helicopters are an excellent tool to achieve that goal.” The novelty now is that new expedition ships are being built that explicitly have helicopters on board, like Quark’s new flagship, the Ultramarine.

Both Quark and Scenic rely on the latest Airbus models for their helicopters. These are among the best and least noisiest of their kind in terms of fuel consumption, safety and noise level. Image: Quark Expeditions

Since the announcement by shipping companies that they would specifically include space for helicopters in the construction of their new ships, the discussion about their use has not ceased. In particular, the fact that the helicopters are to be used in environmentally and climatically sensitive regions has led to major concerns. Quark is also aware of this discussion. “We know that many aspects of our business involve the production of CO2 emissions,” explains Alex McNeil. “This is why we have published our Polar Promise, our comprehensive sustainability report which outlines our commitment to reducing our overall emissions wherever possible. The H145 helicopters used on the Ultramarine H145 helicopters used on the Ultramarine are an example of this evolution.” The model is one of Airbus’ newest helicopters, and it obviously met Quark’s requirements. “One of the many reasons we chose the H145 model was that it had the quietest sound profile in its class,” McNeil says. “They also have the most fuel-efficient engines in their class, which is relevant to the emissions factor and was the second important factor in the decision.”

In Antarctica, a precise protocol for the use of helicopters has already been established by the IAATO. At AECO, these guidelines have not yet been drawn up, as each Arctic nation has its own laws on the matter. Picture: Dr Michael Wenger

What is still missing for the Arctic are rules and guidelines for the use of helicopters. IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, has had them in place for years. “As an expedition cruise company that has been operating helicopters in the polar regions longer than anyone else, we have been heavily involved in drafting the IAATO guidelines to ensure that all helicopter operations are conducted in a safe, responsible and environmentally friendly manner,” says Alex McNeil. But for the Arctic, this becomes more difficult to implement, as each Arctic nation has its own laws and rules. Nevertheless, it is important that AECO also addresses this issue, as the number of vessels that will have helicopters on board will certainly increase in AECO’s areas. “We would support the development of helicopter-specific AECO guidelines in the future and look forward to contributing to this process,” says Alex McNeil. This is certainly desirable, as it would also make requests to public authorities null and void and would no longer cause confusion if they were to become public.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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