“Unique”, not special, is the moniker frequently heard in Alaska. With the largest percentage of aircraft ownership in the United States, and nearly seven times more aviation travel than the average American, aviation in Alaska consistently faces challenges that most of America, or even the world, will never experience. However, with those challenges come unique opportunities as well, and COVID-19 has certainly delivered. 82% of Alaska’s communities are not connected to a road system and rely solely on aviation to provide the life, health, and safety needs of their residents. With 229 federally recognized tribal groups within the State, most spread among numerous villages living a subsistence lifestyle, aviation depends equally on people and goods to remain economically viable. With the onset of a global pandemic that has reduced passenger travel by 90% overnight, regional airlines find themselves scrambling to survive. Meanwhile, with the 1918 decimation caused by the Spanish flu of 1918 etched into our First Alaskans’ memories, rural Alaska is striving to find the balance between essential transportation and community preservation. As often occurs, innovative solutions addressing critical concerns have emerged enabling non-touch delivery, socially distant travel, health assessment procedures, and more. Thoughtful lifting of intrastate travel guidelines will be a welcome relief to rural aviation and a critical first step back towards normal.
At the other extreme, Anchorage International Airport (ANC) has unexpectedly taken center stage by checking the “World’s Busiest Airport” square on April 25th. Blessed by location, location, location on the critical trans-Pacific air route, for several years Anchorage has been the #2 air cargo airport in North America (behind FedEx’s Memphis headquarters), and #5 in the world. However, the world’s reduction in passenger travel has brought opportunity to ANC in the form of increased air cargo. With approximately 23% reduction in global cargo capacity due to passenger flight reductions, vast amounts of air cargo have been shifted to freighters. In addition, China is the #1 producer of personal protective equipment (PPE) – a commodity immediately in high demand around the world. Being more efficient to maximize payload and minimize excess fuel, numerous cargo airlines conduct stopovers in Alaska to refuel, swap crews, and continue to the lower 48 states. This dynamic has resulted in a significant increase in air cargo activity with 100+ wide-body aircraft transiting Anchorage every day. With three 10,000+ foot runways and ample pull-thru cargo hard stands, ANC was well prepared for the surge. Thanks to the tremendous partnership between the airlines, the airport, and health agencies, flight crew screening procedures were established early during the crisis and have enabled these critical flights to continue uninterrupted.
Overall, the COVID-19 crisis has served to strongly reinforce how critical aviation is to not only Alaska, or the U.S., but the world. As we emerge from this challenge, and begin the task of rebuilding our economies, airports will be an economic engine to our communities and an integral part of the recovery. May this recent challenge give rise to new opportunities in your part of the world as well.
John R. Binder III, A.A.E.
CEO Alaska International Airport System
Deputy Commissioner of Aviation
Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities