(CNN) – Against the backdrop of the freezing snows of the Chugach Mountains in Alaska, which serves a city of no more than 300,000 people, lies what may be the best airport in the world today.
While a look at a standard 2D map of the Earth might tell you that Alaska is a remote outpost, spin the globe in your head and you’ll see that the United States is, quite literally, on top of the world.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is a modest cargo hub, equidistant between New York and Tokyo, and as its website announces, a flight time of just 9.5 hours from 90% of the industrialized world.
You can almost say that this is the purpose for which this airport was built.
Anchorage International Airport pictured circa 1965.
Harvey Meston/Photo Archive/Getty Images
Completed in 1951, Anchorage Airport was for 40 years a popular stopover for passenger flights traveling from Europe to East Asia, when the Cold War meant that flights over the Soviet Union were severely restricted.
When the ice thawed in international relations in the 1990s, airlines could finally take the most direct economic route across Russia’s vast expanse, allowing them to cut costs, cut flight times and lower fares.
So Anchorage has settled into its current role as a major cargo hub and a modest airport for seasonal passenger flights. Today, it handles about five million passengers annually. (For comparison, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport handled more than 110 million passengers in 2019).
While global passenger traffic is down more than 90%, “we’re seeing an increase in demand for cargo capacity,” airport manager Jim Szczesniak told CNN Travel in April 2020. “And that’s primarily because of a lot of supplies for the fight against COVID in North America.” It is produced in Asia.
Planes ‘fly over the top [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 and then refuel and then to their destination.”
Standard sizes for air freight
At the height of the pandemic, Anchorage Airport was handling approximately 130 wide-body cargo planes per day, and had to use new areas of the airport to accommodate parking.
But in 2022, director of airport divisions operations, Trudy Wasel, told CNN at the beginning of March that 115 wide objects per day became the “new norm.” That equates to about 300 hotel rooms for the cargo crew each night, Wasel says.
Anchorage is home to UPS and FedEx hubs and an enhanced supply chain means the airport is seeing record volumes of air freight for the second year in a row.
It handled about 3.6 million metric tons in 2021 alone, and about one in ten jobs in Anchorage are connected to the airport.
With Russian airspace now banned again, Wasel told CNN that the airport is ready to adapt if carriers need to use the airport due to the current situation, “We are well aware of what is happening in the world and we are ready.
“We are working internally to make sure we have the infrastructure operationally to handle when and if we receive orders for carriers through Anchorage.”
This includes being prepared for whatever operational needs the airline may have.
“For example, will an airline only need a technical layover, which means they’ll just get fuel, maybe change crews, and then leave?” Wasel says. “Our ground operators can operate the aircraft in about 1 hour and 40 minutes depending on the needs of the airline. Or will these airlines come through Anchorage and need additional services? We don’t know yet.”
Airlines have been forced to make zigzag and uneconomical diversions to avoid Russian airspace, and these long flight times drive up costs in terms of staffing, fuel and maintenance.
However, Anchorage is unlikely to return to Cold War levels of passenger traffic because, as Ian Pechenek, director of communications for global flight tracking service FlightRadar24, explains, commercial airliner range has improved dramatically since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
“The range now is impressive, as the plane can travel from its starting point to its destination without stopping,” he told CNN. They do it “less economically, but they can cover the physical distance.”
The most extreme diversion that FlightRadar24 has noted so far is Japan Airlines Flight 43, which flies from Tokyo to London.
It’s gone “from a 12-hour, 12-minute ride to a 15-hour, 15-minute ride,” Pechenek says. “Basically, instead of going west over Russia, it goes east and then hits Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and then heads north into the UK.”
There are also major diversions taking place between Germany and Japan, he adds, but “those have moved south, rather than finding a new direction to travel in.” She adds a few hours, “but it’s not extreme on the map.”
Slots and tables
No one knows how long the current situation will last, but in the coming weeks and months, airlines will be working hard to define their new routes and schedules.
This is not just a matter of economic factors, but it will also involve fighting for job opportunities at airports where the carefully crafted world of aviation has been thrown from flight paths and schedules into disarray.
Although stops are no longer a technical necessity, Anchorage’s strategic location will continue to be an attractive factor.
Before the geopolitical landscape changed dramatically, a new long-haul airline, North Pacific Airways, was already planning to launch international service between the US and Asia via Anchorage as a base, although that is still subject to government approval.
For now, Petchenik suggests we keep observing the sky.
“It’s not necessarily the airports that are busiest, but the airspace,” he says. “A large part of the traffic that normally goes through Russia is moving south, so you see an increase in traffic over Turkey and Romania. [and] places in Eastern Europe.
His prediction was that in the near future, “we’ll see increased pressure of where planes fly. For example, Finnair, their business model was based on taking a shortcut through Russia to get to East Asia and without the ability to do so, which direction would they go?”
He says the polar routes – up through Norway, then down through Canada and Alaska – “could be the most interesting” in times to come.
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