Why Did Flights Heading To Asia From Europe Stop In Alaska?

There once was a time when flights between Europe and Asia refueled in Anchorage, Alaska. In fact, this took place so frequently that the city took on the nickname ‘Crossroads of the World.’ Taking place during the Cold War, up until the late 1980s, let’s look at why this stopover practice was necessary, and how global politics and international relations marked a sudden, significant change for Anchorage Airport.

china airlines departing Anchorag
These days, Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage is better known as a significant cargo hub rather than a passenger-stopover facility. Photo: BriYYZ via Flickr 

It’s interesting to look at old newspaper articles covering the changing aviation situation in the late 1980s. Referencing a UPI article from 1988 and a CS Monitor piece from 1991, it’s clear that operations would change drastically for Ted Stevens International Airport – known only at the time as Anchorage Airport. Those covering the story and the time certainly looked at the situation as ‘the end of an era.’ What was this all about?

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The closed-off Soviet Union and overflight rights

The airspace above any country is logically governed and controlled by the government beneath it. States have the right to grant overflight rights to airlines from other countries and have the same ability to deny these rights for whatever reason they can justify. For an interesting application of this concept in current times, we only need to look at the Qatar blockade, which has been in place since 2017.

The passage below is how the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization defines right of overflight:

An overflight right or right of overflight is the right or privilege granted to a State of flying across the territory of the State making the grant, without landing, on a scheduled or other than scheduled international air service. The International Air Services Transit Agreement identifies the related term of First Freedom of the Air — the right or privilege, in respect of scheduled international air services, granted by one State to another State or States to fly across its territory without landing (also known as a First Freedom Right)

To make a long story short, the closed-off Soviet Union (it’s behavior and attitude with the West characterized by the term ‘iron curtain’) denied overflight rights to many international airlines.

One of the most significant outcomes of this policy was that travel between Europe and Asia could not access the ‘Siberian corridor’ – flying over the Soviet Union (Russia today). In the absence of geopolitical factors, this would be the most efficient way to fly between the two regions of the world.

Due to the USSR’s denial of overflight rights, airlines would not be able to fly through Soviet airspace. Photo: GCMap.com

With the range of many aircraft at the time, a refueling stop would have been required somewhere in the Soviet Union – but it would still have been more efficient than going through Anchorage.

Flying around the ‘Iron Curtain’

With the USSR’s airspace closed to many airlines, a workaround had to be developed to connect Europe and Asia. The solution: Anchorage Airport in Alaska. The 2nd most efficient way to fly between Europe and Asia was to fly a polar route north of Soviet airspace. For all passenger aircraft at the time, going north and around this airspace meant that a fuel stop was necessary to go the distance.

Therefore, Anchorage was the airport chosen by most carriers to perform this technical stop along the way.

“[Anchorage Airport may] really only be here because we’re a big gas station.” -Robert Poe, Alaska deputy commissioner of transportation (1988) via UPI

The 1988 article by UPI stated at the time that Anchorage had “made the most of a geographical position that attracts international flights far out of proportion to its size, a city of less than a quarter-million built on the edge of the Alaska wilderness.”

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

Interestingly, it was noted that one carrier, Finnair, flew the polar route between Europe and Asia without refueling in Alaska or flying over the Soviet Union. Instead, a DC-10 flies down the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia using an extra fuel tank.

The fall of Anchorage: Glasnost

In the mid to late 80s that Soviet Union President at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, began a period known as “glasnost.” Most agree that this Russian word can best be interpreted in English as “openness” – commonly associated with freedom of speech and increased transparency with the outside world and citizens of the USSR.

One aviation-related outcome of glasnost was the opening of Soviet airspace. This allowed some planes to take “shortcuts over Siberia.”

‘This is all happening sooner than we expected because of Gorbachev and glasnost…The future looks even more bleak if we look at the latest Japan Air Lines five-year plan which projects that by 1991 JAL’s passenger flights through Anchorage will decrease from the current 17 round-trip flights per week to four,’ -Gina Marie Lindsey, development manager for Anchorage International Airport (1988) via UPI

Why Did Flights Heading To Asia From Europe Stop In Alaska?
Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was primarily responsible for opening the USSR to the West. Photo: Getty Images

The fall of Anchorage: Long-range jets

Glasnost and the ultimate decline of the Soviet Union was just one of two reasons Anchorage is no longer the ‘big gas station’ it once was. The other reason was the development of long-range aircraft that could go the distance between Europe and East Asia.

Sources note that Japan Air Lines, Air France, British Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, and British Caledonia moved to operate 16 round-trip flights weekly between Europe and Asia that previously stopped in Anchorage. Instead of the stopover, the aircraft fly over Siberia or refuel in Moscow.

747 British Airways Landor
Long-range aircraft like the 747-400 was another factor in the decline of Anchorage Airport. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Sources note that during a forum sponsored by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska deputy commissioner of transportation pointed to a large blow-up picture of Boeing’s long-range 747-400 and said, ‘Here’s the culprit.’

Anchorage Airport is still alive

The opening of Soviet (and subsequently Russian) airspace combined with longer-range aircraft was a massive blow to Anchorage Airport and the revenue that it could generate.

In the late 80s, it was noted that each round-trip flight Anchorage loses equated to “a direct loss of $79,748 in fees, taxes, fuel, duty-free shopping, concession and catering losses.”

However, the life of Anchorage Airport – now Ted Stevens International – isn’t over. The airport has been able to survive as a central cargo hub for transpacific operations. You can read more about that in another Simple Flying article. In fact, the airport is hoping to attract more passengers in the future.