Anchorage: The Cargo Mega Airport Eyes More Passengers

The current pandemic has thrust Anchorage into the spotlight, with the airport becoming one of the busiest in the world earlier this year. As a mega hub for cargo flights, Anchorage has seen a significant uptick in traffic as airlines pivot to carrying freight instead of passengers. This success has pushed the airport to try and establish itself as a passenger hub too. So, can the airport pull it off?

Already a major cargo hub, Anchorage is pushing to attract passengers as well. Photo: Getty Images

A former passenger hub

While Anchorage may be popular for cargo flights now, the airport has a long history as a stopover for flights to East Asia. The Cold War meant that the Soviet Union and allied countries’ airspace was closed to the US and its allies in Europe and Asia. This forced many carriers to make stopovers on their way around the globe, and Anchorage emerged as an excellent midpoint for such flights.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

European airlines such as SAS, British Airways, and Air France used Anchorage as a stop on flights to cities such as Tokyo (the long way around!). Similarly, Asian and US carriers such as Korean Air, Japan Airlines, and Northwest Airlines used the city for the same reasons.

Anchorage served as gateway between the East and West since Soviet airspace was out-of-bounds to many carriers. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

Since aircraft range in the 1950s to 1980s was also lower, aircraft were forced to make a stop on these trans-pacific routes. This effectively made Anchorage the gateway to the East and West for airlines, and a major passenger hub.

However, this gateway status came to an end in the late 1980s. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the once-forbidden airspace reopen, allowing carriers to take shorter routes to Asia. By the 1990s most carriers withdrew from Anchorage, with only a handful of airlines operating services to the city.

Despite the drop in passenger demand due to shorter routes and long-range aircraft, Anchorage has thrived. This is due to cargo airlines, who still use the airport for freight transit and as a hub to the east, preferring short routes instead of long-haul ones.

china airlines departing Anchorag
Anchorage still serves as major cargo hub thanks to its ideal location. Photo: BriYYZ via Flickr

Currently, Anchorage serves mainly as a domestic airport for passengers. Alaska Airlines leads by destinations, with United also flying a number of seasonal routes. A few seasonal international flights do remain too. Condor flies from Frankfurt and Icelandair from Reykjavik, and one flight from Russia.

More passengers soon?

Anchorage airport was built with the intention of processing thousands of daily international passengers, with enough aircraft stands and parking. While cargo traffic has picked up and replaced many of these slots, the airport could easily still handle more international passengers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped the airport come into the spotlight once again, playing a pivotal role in global cargo movement. This boost in traffic and popularity has Anchorage believing that it could once again become a passenger hub.

Anchorage Airport
Anchorage currently only sees domestic passenger flights, along with a handful of seasonal international routes. Photo: Joseph via Flickr

According to sources, Anchorage is courting airlines to stopover at the airport on flights to the rest of the US. This tactic is aimed at foreign carriers, allowing them to add a unique destination to their route maps while connecting the rest of the US. This, in turn, would be a boost to the Alaskan tourism and airports, a prime source of jobs in the state.

Recently, the airport objected to United’s fifth-freedom route between Hong Kong and Singapore. The reason being that the airline would be better served by a stop in Alaska instead, eventually bringing in tourists too. While the claim was rejected, it highlights Anchorage’s main plans for the airport.

Is it feasible?

While Anchorage could make for an interesting destination for tourists, now is a tough time for new routes. Leisure travel has been hit the hardest by the pandemic and will likely not recover for years to come, preventing airlines from adding new cities to their route maps. There is also little guarantee of how successful Anchorage will be a tourist destination.

Improvements in aircraft technology also mean planes can fly farther than before, more efficiently. This removes any need for Anchorage as a stopping point for traffic into the rest of the US, a key selling point. Airlines are unlikely to revert to the days of making a technical stop on their Pacific journey.

A350 landing Brisbane
Newer aircraft can efficiently fly between faraway cities, removing the need for a stopover. Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation

However, Anchorage believes it has a shot at attracting passenger traffic. Alaska’s unique climate and beautiful scenery make the state a popular holiday location. While this may not guarantee traffic, along with some incentives, the airport might be able to convince airlines in the future.

Considering the high cargo voume through the airport, perhaps Alaska could push airlines to start flights by providing discounted landing fees, as airports have done in the past. Seeing the importance of tourism to the state economy, such a move can’t be ruled out.

Anchorage remains a major hub

Regardless of whether Anchorage reestablishes itself as a passenger hub, the airport still plays a massive role. The airport sees dozens of daily flights from the biggest cargo operators in the world. With more airlines expanding cargo operations, the airport will continue being a mega hub for international trade.

Anchorage recently even hosted the giant Antanov An-225, the largest freight carrier in the world. Photo: Antanov Airlines

Considering the current state of the aviation industry, it’s unlikely airlines will be jumping at the chance to fly to Anchorage. However, in a few years time when traffic picks up again, we might see more airlines fly passengers to the city. For now, Anchorage remains a major cargo hub for the airlines of the world, a title that will be hard to take from it.

What do you think about Anchorage airport as a passenger hub? Would you travel to the city? Let us know in the comments below!