Anchorage: The small airport on the roof of the world

Anchorage: The small airport on the roof of the world

(CNN) — Set against the snowy backdrop of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, serving a city of just 300,000 people, lies what may well be the best-located airport in the world today.

While a look at a standard 2D map of Earth might tell you that Alaska is a distant outpost, spin the globe in your head and you’ll see the US state is, quite literally, on top of the world.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is an unassuming cargo hub, equidistant between New York and Tokyo and, as its website states, just 9.5 flight hours from 90% of the industrialized world.

Now that more than 30 countries have banned Russia from its airspacewith Russia’s response in kind — and Ukraine and Belarus’ airspace also closed — Anchorage could prove strategically important.

You could almost say that’s what this airport was built for.

Stage city

Anchorage International Airport photographed circa 1965.

Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Completed in 1951, Anchorage Airport was a popular stopover for passenger flights traveling from Europe to East Asia for 40 years, when the Cold War meant flights over the Soviet Union were severely restricted.

When international relations thawed in the 1990s, airlines were finally able to fly the most direct economic routes across Russia’s vast expanse, allowing them to cut costs, cut flight times and lower the costs.

Anchorage has thus settled into its present role as a major center for cargo traffic and a modest airport for seasonal passenger flights. Today, it handles around five million passengers a year. (For comparison, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport handled more than 110 million passengers in 2019.)

But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020, Anchorage returned to the global spotlight when it played a key role in the international transport of essential medical goods. It even became – for a brief window – the busiest airport in the world.

While global passenger traffic has fallen by more than 90%, “we’re seeing increased demand for cargo capacity,” airport manager Jim Szczesniak told CNN Travel in April 2020. “And that’s mainly because a lot of the supplies for the fight against Covid in North America are produced in Asia.”

Planes “fly and fly over [of the globe] to shorten the distance,” he explained. “The advantage of Anchorage is that planes can fly full of cargo but only half full of fuel. They fly to Anchorage, then they refuel, then they go to their destination.”

Record Air Cargo Volumes

At the height of the pandemic, Anchorage Airport was handling nearly 130 wide-body cargo aircraft a day and needed to use new areas of the airport to accommodate parking.

But in 2022, Trudy Wassel, the airport’s divisional operations manager, told CNN in early March that 115 jumbo jets a day had become the “new normal.” That equates to about 300 hotel rooms for the cargo crew per night, Wassel says.

Anchorage is home to hubs for UPS and FedEx and a strengthened supply chain means the airport is seeing record air cargo volumes for the second straight year.

It handled some 3.6 million metric tons in 2021 alone, and about one in ten jobs in Anchorage are airport-related.

With Russian airspace once again off limits, Wassel told CNN the airport is ready to adapt if carriers have to use the airport due to the current situation: “We are well aware of what is happening. in the world and we remain by your side.

“We are working internally to ensure that operationally we have the infrastructure in place to manage when and if we receive requests from carriers to go through Anchorage.”

This means being prepared for the operational needs of airlines, whatever they may be.

“For example, is an airline just going to need a technical stop, which means it’s just going to take on fuel, maybe change crew, and then go again?” Wassel said. “Our ground handlers can turn a plane around in about an hour and 40 minutes depending on the airline’s needs. Or will these airlines go through Anchorage and require additional services? We don’t know yet.”

Improved range

Airlines have been forced into torturous and uneconomical diversions to avoid Russian airspace, and these longer flight times increase costs in terms of personnel, fuel and maintenance.

However, Anchorage is unlikely to return to Cold War levels of passenger traffic because, says Ian Petchenik, director of communications for global flight tracking service FlightRadar24, the range of commercial aircraft has improved dramatically since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

“The range is now impressive, where the aircraft can fly from origin to destination without stopping,” he told CNN. They do it “less economically, but they can cover the physical distance”.

The most extreme hijacking FlightRadar24 has noted so far is Japan Airlines Flight 43, which flies from Tokyo to London.

It went “from a 12 hour and 12 minute flight to a 15 hour and 15 minute flight,” says Petchenik. “Basically, instead of going west over Russia, it goes east, then hits Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, then descends through the northern route to the UK.”

He adds that there are also major diversions between Germany and Japan, but “these have moved south, rather than finding a new direction in which to travel.” He adds a few hours, “but it’s not as extreme on the map.”

Slots and times

Nobody knows how long the current situation will last, but in the weeks and months to come, airlines will be working hard to determine their new routes and schedules.

This is not just a matter of economic factors but will also involve fighting for airport slots as the carefully mapped world of flight paths and aviation schedules has been turned upside down.

Although stopovers are no longer a technical necessity, Anchorage’s strategic location will remain an attractive factor.

Before the geopolitical landscape changed so drastically, a new long-haul airline, Northern Pacific Airways, was already planning to launch international service between the United States and Asia via Anchorage as its base, although this was still subject to government approval.

For now, Petchenik suggests continuing to watch the skies.

“It’s not necessarily the airports that are the busiest, but the airspace,” he says. “A lot of the traffic that would normally go through Russia is moving south, so you’re seeing an increase in traffic over Turkey, Romania [and] Eastern European locations.”

His prediction is that in the near future, “We will see more compression of where planes are flying. For example, Finnair, their business model was based on taking a shortcut through Russia to reach Asia from the East and without the ability to do so, in what direction do they travel?”

In times to come, he says, the polar routes – through Norway, then through Canada and Alaska – “may be the most interesting”.