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New Zealand airline plans to push boundaries by flying to Antarctica

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - New Zealand's flagship airline plans to fly planes to Antarctica that pilots would land on an ice runway.

But tourists wanting to travel to the frozen continent will need to keep their hopes in check. The chartered Air New Zealand flights would be for scientists and their support crews, and the airline said Tuesday it has no plans to begin commercial trips.

Many countries already fly scientists to Antarctica. But those flights are typically run by government or military agencies, or by specialized companies.

Air New Zealand plans to use one of its regular passenger jets for the Antarctic flights, a Boeing 767-300.

Airline spokeswoman Marie Hosking said the jet doesn't need any modifications and that the Antarctic ice runway has the characteristics of a regular runway that's covered in dry snow, much like the airline's pilots might expect to encounter at an airport like Tokyo.

The airline plans an Oct. 5 trial run. If successful, it would operate two more charter flights during the upcoming Antarctic summer season.

Planes would leave from Christchurch and land on the Pegasus runway on the Ross Ice Shelf, a trip of 2,090 nautical miles that takes about five hours. Unlike the existing military flights, the Air New Zealand planes could return, in good conditions, without refuelling . Getting fuel to Antarctica is difficult and expensive.

The flights have been chartered by Antarctica New Zealand, the agency that runs the country's Antarctic program. Flights would also carry American scientists as the U.S. works collaboratively with the South Pacific nation in Antarctica.

Graeme Ayres, the operations manager for Antarctica New Zealand, said the landing strip needs to be prepared carefully so there's sufficient granulation to provide friction.

"Obviously you can't have a slippery ice rink," he said. "That would be quite hazardous."

He said the planes would be able to transport about 200 scientists and support staff on each trip.

"They have the capability to move mass numbers of people pretty quickly," he said. "It's a pretty exciting time."

Stephen Parker, a spokesman for New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, said the country tries to limit Antarctic tourism and minimize its impact on the environment.

"This is consistent with Antarctica's status as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science," he said.

Air New Zealand has never landed in Antarctica but briefly ran scenic flights over the continent. But in 1979, one of its planes crashed into Mt. Erebus, killing all 257 aboard. That disaster has left a scar on New Zealand and likely factored into the airline's decision not to return to Antarctica for more than three decades.

Australian company Antarctica Sightseeing Flights charters planes to run scenic tours over the continent.

But tourists wanting to set foot on Antarctica must typically travel by boat. The Rhode Island-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators estimates about 35,000 tourists visited the continent last summer.

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