Published in October 2015 issue

Air Crossroads of the Cargo World

By Trevor Ogle

Arrive in Anchorage, and you’ll see right away why Alaska is often called the last frontier. Mountains are close by and, awaiting you, there is an abundance of natural wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, diverse terrain, forests, and some of the world’s most extreme aviation opportunities.

The rugged beauty of the outdoors permeates the airport itself. “As you enter the terminal, you are greeted by huge stuffed grizzly bears in a display case,” says Kris Voronin, of Fairbanks, who frequents Anchorage several times a month. “Most visitors between June and September arrive to meet cruise ships, or for fishing, and most of the checked baggage on departure at that time seem to be coolers packed with frozen fish.”

But the graceful Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) isn’t merely about aesthetics or outdoor sport.

This is a hard-working facility. In 2014, ANC ranked as the world’s fifth busiest airport for cargo operations, behind Hong Kong (HKG), Memphis (MEM), Shanghai (PVG), and Seoul Incheon (ICN), according to the Airports Council International.

ANC used to call itself the ‘air crossroads of the world’ for the many intercontinental flights that stopped here to refuel on their way back and forth to Asia. That heyday is over, now that commercial airlines routinely cross the Pacific nonstop. However, for cargo flights, ANC remains a major fuel stop for airlines trying to ensure maximum payload capability. ‘Air crossroads of the cargo world’ is a name that still fits.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International is Alaska’s major entry point—the main connection between America’s largest state and the rest of the world. “This airport is my gate to the world outside Alaska,” Voronin says. “In a place with so many remote and hard-to-access locations, air transport is not a privilege but a necessity, and this airport does a very good job as the main portal for this necessity.”

This far north in the proverbial land of the midnight sun, visitors must adjust to a different sense of time. The best season to visit Anchorage is between late May and early September, when the hours of daylight allow very late night wildlife photographic opportunities, as well as some of the best airplane spotting in the world.

Daylight lasts for about 20 hours during June and it’s possible to take excellent photographs as late as 23:00. With this much daylight, the hardest decision is when to leave the airport for dinner.

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Anchorage International Airport was built while Alaska was still a territory, thanks to $13 million (over $130 million today) approved by the US Congress in May 1948 to develop airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Anchorage Airport was constructed four miles southwest of downtown on 4,500 acres (1,821 Ha), east of the Gompertz Channel of Cook Inlet. It opened in December 1951 with an 8,400-foot east/west runway and a 5,000-foot north/south runway. A passenger terminal came a year later.

The construction, ownership and operation of the facility were under the Civil Aeronautics Commission (CAA), predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which came into existence in 1958. It was known as Anchorage International Airport until 2000, when it was renamed to honor the longtime Republican senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens.

Europe-to-Asia ‘over the pole’ traffic began to make use of Anchorage in 1957, when Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) initiated its Copenhagen-Tokyo service with a fuel stop at the Alaska airport. Northwest Orient, too, began using Anchorage as a fuel stop on routes from the US to Tokyo. Other early carriers at the new airport were Alaska Airlines, Pacific Northern Airlines, and Reeve Aleutian Airways.

Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959. Six months later, the US transferred its ownership of Anchorage International Airport to the new state at an estimated value of $11.6 million (almost $95 million today).

During the 1960s, Anchorage began calling itself the ‘air crossroads of the world’. With good reason. Seven international carriers, Japan Airlines, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Sabena and SAS, used ANC as a regular fuel stop on flights between Europe, Asia and North America.

At the dawn of the jet age, Anchorage extended its east/ west runway to 10,600 feet. However, in 1964, a 9.2-Richter magnitude earthquake shook south central Alaska. The airport’s control tower, not designed to withstand such force, collapsed. Thankfully, the adjacent seaplane base, Lake Hood Airport (LHD) had a control tower which could provide air traffic control service to ANC until a temporary facility was built in 1965. The replacement remained in service until the current tower opened in 1977.

In the 1970s, the discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska and the construction of the multi-billion dollar trans- Alaska Pipeline sparked a boom in the state, and international passenger traffic increased dramatically.

The 1980s opened with the construction of a new 10,496 feet north/south runway, and the inauguration in 1982 of the North Terminal for international transit passengers. The initial years of the decade were prosperous for Alaska, due to the royalties from oil industry, but prices declined later in the decade, causing major cuts in state budgets, sharp drops in property values, and a drop-off in domestic traffic at the airport.

As the 1980s were coming to an end, so did the Soviet Union. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the restricted Soviet airspace opened to traffic, allowing operators to fly shorter routes and save time, fuel, and operational costs. Soon, Anchorage’s role as an essential refuelling point began losing relevance.

“International passenger traffic disappeared almost overnight after the Berlin Wall came down,” said John Parrott, ANC’s manager. At its peak, in 1990, the airport handled 104,000 international passengers. Just four years later, the number had declined by more than half, to around 50,000. Today, passenger volume has contracted to the point that ANC no longer offers year-round regular international passenger service, Parrott said.

The onset of new technologies that have enhanced commercial airline reliability, the introduction of twin-engine widebodies, such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330, and operational regimes such as ETOPS—all reduced the number of international passengers in transit.

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After three decades, the 1969-built Concourse B required an extensive overhaul to bring the premises up to current code standards, including a seismic retrofit. Concourse A, although 15 years younger, was also crying out for an update.

In 1998, to make the upgrades, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public facilities selected aviation planning and design consultants HNTB; RIM Architects; and program manager Parsons Brinckerhoff,.

In 2004, at an estimated cost of $300 million, Concourse C was completely rebuilt after six years of design and construction. Concourses A and B were renovated in November 2009 for an additional $200 million.

The renovations included a centrally located TSA screening space, expanded baggage claim areas, upgraded HVAC, mechanical, electrical and communication systems, and enhanced baggage handling and building-security systems.

The renovations provided passengers with the convenience of walking between Concourses B and C without having to go through security screening again.

The result? “As a passenger, the ambiance at ANC is nice, easy, and uncomplicated, as well as aesthetically pleasant,” says frequent traveler Voronin.

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Alaska Airlines (AS) dominates at Anchorage, being responsible for 56% of all domestic traffic, followed far behind by Delta (DL), at 14%.

The top domestic destinations are Seattle, Fairbanks, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon. Germany is the biggest international destination, with 39% of all international passengers flying there, followed closely by Canada at 37%. Iceland is third (17%).

The airport moves plenty of freight. ANC holds a unique position among international air gateways. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) began to permit air carriers from foreign countries (except those from the United Kingdom and Japan) to expand cargo activities at ANC, including cargo transfer from a foreign carrier’s aircraft to any of its other aircraft, transfer from a foreign carrier to any U.S. air carrier, and transfer from one foreign carrier to another. This ruling gave a boost to the already growing international trade through ANC.

Also, an amendment made by the late Sen. Ted Stevens to the 2004 Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act allows cargo landed in the state on its way to and from the U.S. to be transferred among planes and carriers without subjection to federal regulations, as it is still considered to be on its international journey. “Nowhere else in the world, in a significant country, is a foreign carrier allowed to pick up cargo within a country, take it to another place in that country and offload it,” Parrot enthused.

Everts Air Cargo (5V) is a mainstay, with a fleet dominated by DC-6s, which are considered especially valuable fo their payload and their performance on Alaska’s many short gravel runways. Northern Air Cargo (NC) is an ANCbased cargo carrier operating frequent service to many locations within Alaska with three Boeing 737-200s and two 737-300s. Conoco Phillips regularly operates three 737-700s to oil drilling facilities at the North Slope. These 737 aircraft are a rare sight outside Alaska.

Era Aviation (7H), the airline featured in the Discovery Channel TV show Flying Wild Alaska, operates a variety of aircraft, including de Havilland DHC8s, Beech 1900Cs and Beech 1900Ds to locations around the state. Peninsula Airways, operating as Pen Air, runs a large fleet to communities around the state. Its fleet includes Saab 340s, Fairchild Metroliners, Grumman Gooses, Cessna Caravans and several smaller types.

Boeing’s Dreamlifters, operated by Atlas Air, frequently fly through Anchorage, using the airport as a fuel stop when carrying Boeing 787 Dreamliner sections from Japan to Boeing plants in the US.

FedEx and UPS both have big facilities at the airport. FedEx opened its Alaska regional headquarters and a processing facility in 1989. UPS constructed premises in the North Airpark to serve as its primary refuelling and sorting facility between Asia and North America. The companies not only created strategic inroads into a burgeoning Asian market, but also pushed the airport into the global eye. Both logistics companies foresee a large growth in traffic over the next several years as trade with China and other Asian economies increases.

Cargo aircraft are not as diverse as passenger ones. Boeing 747-8Fs and 747-400Fs are literally the Queens of the Skies in Anchorage, responsible for carrying 83% of all cargo. Boeing 777-Fs and MD-11Fs are also common sights at the airport.


Many airplane spotters make the long journey to Anchorage to enjoy capturing a wide variety of aircraft types in spectacular settings.

The seemingly endless procession of Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas MD-11 freighters from many of the world’s cargo airlines is interspersed with old piston freight dogs such as Douglas DC-3s, DC-6s or Curtiss C-46s, rarities in most other parts of the world but still frequent operators in Alaska. Spotters also see plenty of aircraft from Alaska Airlines’ fleet based in ANC, its second busiest hub behind Seattle.

There are several prime locations for aviation photography. From first light, which occurs remarkably early in this part of the world, photographers want to be on the hill at the northeast end of Runway 15/33. From here, great shots of landings on Runway 15 or departures off Runway 33 are possible. Excellent photographs of aircraft taxiing for a Runway 15 departure, and of operations on the most northerly ramp, usually served by Polar, Atlas and Southern Air Cargo are also possible.

The light is good here until early afternoon, when the sun is straight down the runway. This is an excellent time to leave the airport for lunch.

It is also a good time to explore the photographic possibilities on the parallel 7/25 Runway. The sun is by now to the south of the parallels and some excellent pictures can be taken from the crash gate to the south of the runways just west of the former Alaska National Guard (ANG) base. Excellent views of the terminal ramp areas are also possible from here, although the photographer should be aware of the significant heat haze when photographing over the extensive paved area of runways and taxiways.

For more adventurous spotters and photographers, an excellent location is available just to the south of the threshold of 7R. This does, however, require a 15-20 minute hike through the bush. Be warned: you’ll likely encounter a moose, and maybe even a bear.

This elevated location does provide excellent photographic opportunities with a great Alaskan backdrop. By 15:00 the sun has moved to the west of Runway 15/33, which opens up great possibilities for landings on 15 or departures off 33, with the spectacular Chugach Mountain range in the background. These mountaintops are snow-covered even in late June or early July, but are even more spectacular when photographed in May.

A roadway runs parallel to Runway 15/33, and the best spot for photography is on a hill on the west side of the road. This elevated location allows for great photography without concern for the airport fence. Moose sightings are very common here and, if a crackling noise is heard in the woods behind the spotting location, the chances are that a moose is trampling over the twigs. Temperatures usually range from the mid- 50s to the mid-70s (mid-10s to mid-20s in Celsius), and are normally very pleasant, but carry a light jacket for the early morning and late evening.

A trip to ANC wouldn’t be complete without spending a little time observing and photographing operations at Lake Hood—the world’s busiest floatplane base and very accessible to airplane spotters. Hundreds of floatplanes are based around the perimeter of the lake. There are three landing and departing water areas, plus one gravel strip, Runway 13/31, 2,200 feet long. In summertime, there is an almost continuous stream of arrivals and departures into Lake Hood. With Alaska’s limited road infrastructure, many places are accessible only by floatplane.

Elmendorf Air Force Base is also located in Anchorage and has frequent operations, ensuring that the airspace around Anchorage always has something of interest for enthusiasts. Aircraft on approach to Elmendorf can be seen cutting across the final approach path for Runway 15 at Anchorage.

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Even without the fuel-stop requirement in Anchorage for passenger carriers on polar routes, the airport is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Shannon and Gander when transatlantic operations no longer required fuel stops.

Anchorage is located within 9.5 hours of flying time from 90% of the industrialized world, and cargo carriers will always try to maximize the loads they can carry, even if this requires an enroute fuel stop.

Accordingly, Anchorage has no slot restrictions or curfews, and operates 24 hours. There are now over 500 wide-body cargo landings per week. Approximately 50 cargo destinations are served from Anchorage, and nearly two million gallons of fuel are pumped each day.

And it’s not only cargo planes that are welcome at ANC. Aircraft enthusiasts are treated warmly too, partly due to the large number who frequent the airport over the year, most notably during the Alaskan summer time. If you love aircraft, this is a great airport to visit.