Airlines have been flying over the Pacific Ocean since the 1930s — here's how the practice evolved over the years

ReutersA Cathay Pacific Airways Airbus A350 aeroplane approaches to land at Changi International Airport in Singapore.
  • Transpacific flying began in 1935 with Pan American World Airways launching flying boats from San Francisco to destinations across Asia, Australia, and Oceania.
  • The practice quickly evolved as aircraft technology increasing, reducing the number of stops in order to traverse the ocean.
  • The Boeing 747 allowed for nonstop flights between continents as it traversed the Pacific with ease.
  • Then relaxed regulations for twin-engine aircraft later saw smaller aircraft begin flying transpacific routes.
  • The skies above the Pacific are now diverse with a wide variety of aircraft flying countless flights on a daily basis.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Flying over oceans has been a common practice in aviation since before World War II.

With the aerial mode of transportation offering quicker journey times than ocean liners, airlines quickly began to standardize the practice and offer reliable, scheduled services that would be a large step in making the world a smaller place.

Transatlantic flying was the primary focus as Western Europe and the eastern United States were closer in terms of both distance and historical ties but flying over the Pacific Ocean soon became an area of interest for airlines.

Though the stakes were higher, with a notable shortage of land existing between the Hawaiian Islands and the mainland US, establishing air routes across the Pacific was of strategic importance not only for airlines seeking to grow their route networks, but also the military as World War II loomed.

Thanks to innovations in aircraft technology, flying across the Pacific is a daily occurrence for countless airlines seeking to connect cites on both sides of the international dateline, as well as the numerous islands throughout Oceania.

Here’s how transpacific flying has evolved over the years.

The first advances in transpacific flying came from Pan American World Airways, one of the earliest leaders in aviation.

AP Photo/Matty ZimmermanA Pan American World Airways plane.

Source: Pan Am Historical Society

Pan Am scouting the first transpacific route, flying from San Francisco to Honolulu in 1935.

AP PhotoPan Am’s first flight from San Francisco to Hawaii.

Source: Pan Am Historical Society

The flight was operated on a four-engine flying boat that could land on water if need be, a luxury that most modern airliners do not have.

Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesA view from the Boeing 314 Pan Am Bermuda Clipper.

Source: Pan Am Historical Society

Island hopping was a common practice in the early days of transpacific flying, with the propeller aircraft of the time not having the range of today’s airliners.

AP PhotoA Pan American World Airways floatplane.

A flight between California and China, for example, would need to stop in Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam and Manila along the way, a week’s journey.

AP PhotoA Pan Am floatplane in Hong Kong.

Source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

As aircraft technology advanced following the war, routes grew longer and a flight from Sydney to San Francisco, for example, could be flown with only two stops in Fiji and Hawaii on aircraft such as the Lockheed Constellation…

BenSlater / Shutterstock.comAn Australian postage stamp depicting a Qantas Lockheed Constellation.

And later, the Boeing 707.

Edward Haylan / Shutterstock.comA Qantas Boeing 707.

Quad-engine narrow-body aircraft such as the Douglas DC-8 could also make the journey between the US and Asia with a single stop, greatly bringing travel times down.

AP PhotoA Delta Air Lines DC-8.

The strides made by the jet age of the mid-1900s soon allowed for nonstop flights over the Pacific Ocean between continents, with the four-engine Boeing 747 being able to fly from cities throughout the mainland US to Asia, Australia, and Oceania with ease.

APA Boeing 747 aircraft.

The 747 later became a staple on transpacific flights thanks to its capacity and range.

James D. Morgan/GettyA Qantas Boeing 747.

Three and four-engine aircraft dominated the skies over the Pacific as the prevailing theory for flying over the ocean was that there was safety in the number of engines a plane had. via Getty ImagesA Pan American Boeing 747.

The revolution in transpacific flying then came in the mid-1980s when the Federal Aviation Administration granted twin-engine aircraft the ability to fly overwater routes through a program called Extended Twin-engine Overwater Performance Standards or ETOPS.

APA Boeing 767 aircraft.

Source: Boeing

Under ETOPS, twin-engine aircraft were given ratings in minutes that determined how far they can stray from a diversion airport in the event of an engine failure where an emergency landing would be required.

KYODO Kyodo/ReutersA Boeing 787 Dreamliner after an emergency landing.

Source: Boeing

The first twin-engine aircraft to perform an ETOPS flight was a Trans World Airlines Boeing 767 that flew transatlantic between New York and Paris, kicking off a twin-engine revolution in aviation that would see the demise of three and four-engine aircraft.

Ed Bailey/APTWA Boeing 747 aircraft at JFK Airport.

Source: Boeing

With relaxed rules for twin-engine aircraft flying over water, Boeing and Airbus both developed widebody, twin-engine aircraft including the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 designed to operate overwater routes more efficiently than larger aircraft.

Reuters/StringerA Boeing 777 test flight.

The practice soon expanded to the Pacific, with flights to Asia increasing being operated by twin-engine flights on North Pacific routes.

Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/GettyA Korean Air Boeing 777-200.

Soon enough, twin-engine planes were taking over routes over both oceans and serving destinations once only served by planes with more than two engines.

ReutersA Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330-200 takes off at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco.

Qantas became one of the more recent airlines to retire its Boeing 747s from transpacific routes in 2019, largely replacing them with twin-engine aircraft,…

REUTERS/Daniel MunozA Qantas Boeing 747-400.

Such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Benjamin Zhang/Business InsiderA Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Flying over the Pacific is such a common practice that even narrow-body aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 can fly safely between the mainland US and Hawaii and even between Alaska and Hawaii.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderAn Alaska Airlines A320.

Routes to destinations such as Australia, Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Fiji all see twin-engine aircraft thanks to the ETOPS program.

Francois Mori/APAn Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

LATAM Airlines is one of the most notable airlines flying transpacific routes as it connects South America and Australia through a notoriously desolate corridor of the Pacific.

David Slotnick/Business InsiderA LATAM Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The aircraft used by LATAM, however, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which can fly for over five hours on a single-engine.

Stephen Brashear/GettyThe first flight of a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

Source: Boeing

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