Anchorage eyes return to normalcy

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has been making news.

Since 2007, the cargo passing through the airport has fallen by 25 percent.

On May 22, more than 100 people attended a public meeting about the airport’s plans for a new runway, according to Alaska Dispatch. Some raised concerns that the airport continues to plan expansion despite a weak economy taking its toll.

“The downturn in cargo that seems to be making a lot of news recently actually isn’t new,” John Parrott, airport manager, says.

After all, airports around the globe are also experiencing a drop in cargo. Despite Anchorage losing 25 percent, it consistently counts itself among the top five busiest cargo airports, according to Airports Council International.

“The air cargo industry right now is struggling,” Parrott says. “It’s attempting to adapt to the economic climate.”

Besides the economy, he says “some small incremental factors” also play a role in the airport’s cargo decline.

The capacity of Boeing 777 passenger aircraft to carry cargo takes away from freighters.

“I suspect that some of that space is being used instead of putting things on dedicated freighters,” he says.

But he insists that a “fair amount” of the cargo going through Anchorage follows a different path.

“As an example, if you’re shipping parts from the Hyundai factory in Korea to the Hyundai factory in the Southeast United States, you probably don’t want to put that on five or six different 777s,” Parrott says. “It’s more efficient to just put that on one Asiana [Airlines] aircraft and fly it through Anchorage to the auto factory.”

He says the decrease in cargo at the airport has had a minimal effect on Alaska because the state’s small population doesn’t consume a great deal of the goods that go through the airport.

“Most of the cargo that comes through here doesn’t start or stop here,” Parrott says. “It is transiting through Alaska on its way to Asia and the Lower 48 states.”

And what about that new runway?

Parrott says the runway is one of the alternatives for the airport’s long-term master plan.

“That’s a master plan that’s looking out 20 years in the future, and at some point in time, there may be a need for an additional runway,” he says. “That’s clearly not something we’re looking at at this point in time. That’s simply a future alternative…It wouldn’t make any sense to be seriously considering that when traffic is 25 percent down.”

The airport now has about 211,000 operations per year; at the peak of 2007, it had about 23 percent more operations per year.

“We need a few years of steady growth to get back to the normal operations that we’ve already handled,” Parrott says.

It is projected that the airport will return to its previous levels of activity by the mid-2020s, perhaps a decade down the road, he says.

Planning efforts take anywhere from 12 to 15 years, which is why the airport is considering beginning the planning stages of a runway now rather than in the mid-2020s.

“It’ll probably be prudent to take a look at our capacity,” he says, “and see if we need to start the planning efforts sometime between now and then.”

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