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Against the snow-frosted backdrop of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, serving a city of just 300,000 people, sits what might just be the best-located airport in the world today.
While a look at a standard 2-D map of Earth might tell you Alaska is a far-flung outpost, spin the globe in your head and you’ll see that the US state is, quite literally, on the top of the world.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is an unassuming cargo hub, equidistant between New York and Tokyo and, as its website declares, just 9.5 hours flying time from 90% of the industrialized world.
Now that more than 30 countries have banned Russia from their airspaces, with Russia responding in kind – and Ukraine and Belarus airspace also closed – Anchorage could prove strategically important.
You could almost say it’s what this airport was built for.
Completed in 1951, Anchorage Airport was for 40 years a popular stopover for passenger flights traveling from Europe to East Asia, when the Cold War meant that flights over the Soviet Union were severely restricted.
When international relations thawed in the 1990s, airlines could finally take the most direct, economic routes over the vast Russian expanse, allowing them to cut costs, reduce flight times, and lower prices.
So Anchorage settled into its current role as a major center for cargo traffic and a modest airport of seasonal passenger flights. Today, it handles around five million passengers a year. (For comparison, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport handled more than 110 million passengers in 2019).
But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020, Anchorage stepped into the global spotlight again when it played a key role in the international transport of critical medical goods. It even became – for a brief window – the busiest airport in the world.
While global passenger traffic was down by more than 90%, “We’re seeing an increased demand for cargo capacity,” then airport manager Jim Szczesniak told CNN Travel in April 2020. “And that’s primarily because a lot of the supplies for the fight against Covid in North America are produced in Asia.”
Planes “fly up and over the top [of the globe] to shorten the distance,” he explained. “The advantage of Anchorage is airplanes can fly filled with cargo but only half-filled with fuel. They fly into Anchorage and then they refuel and then on to their destination.”
Record volumes of air cargo
At the height of the pandemic, Anchorage Airport was handling close to 130 cargo wide-body aircraft a day, and was having to use new areas of the airport to accommodate parking.
In 2020, it also played host to the heaviest aircraft ever built, the Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo plane, recently destroyed in Ukraine.
But in 2022, the airport’s divisions operation manager Trudy Wassel told CNN at the beginning of March, 115 wide-bodies a day has become the “new norm.” That equates to about 300 hotel rooms for cargo crew a night, says Wassel.
Anchorage is home to hubs for UPS and FedEx and a strengthened supply chain means the airport is seeing record volumes of air cargo for the second year in a row.
It handled some 3.6 million metric tons in 2021 alone, and around one in ten jobs in Anchorage are connected to the airport.
With Russian airspace now once again off limits, Wassel told CNN that the airport is ready to adapt should carriers need to use the airport because of the current situation, “We’re well aware of what’s happening in the world and we are standing by.
“We are working internally to make sure operationally we have the infrastructure to handle when and if we get requests for carriers to come through Anchorage.”
This involves being prepared for whatever airlines’ operational needs might turn out to be.
“For example, is an airline just going to need a technical stop, which means they will just get fuel, maybe change crews, and then depart?” says Wassel. “Our ground handlers can turn a plane in about an hour and 40 minutes depending on what the airline’s needs are. Or will these airlines come through Anchorage and need additional services? We don’t know yet.”
Airlines have been forced to do tortuous and uneconomical diversions to avoid Russian airspace, and these longer flight times mount up costs in terms of staffing, fuel and maintenance.
However, Anchorage is unlikely to return to Cold War levels of passenger traffic because, explains Ian Petchenik, director of communications at global flight tracking service FlightRadar24, commercial aircraft’s range has improved dramatically since the Soviet Union was dissolved in the early 1990s.
“The range now is impressive, where the airplane can make it from the origin to the destination without stopping,” he tells CNN. They’re doing it “less economically, but they can cover the physical distance.”
The most extreme diversion FlightRadar24 has noted so far is Japan Airlines Flight 43, which goes from Tokyo to London.
It’s gone “from a 12 hour and 12 minute flight to a 15 hour and 15 minute flight,” says Petchenik. “Basically, instead of going west over Russia, it heads east and then hits Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and then comes down the northern route into the UK.”
He adds that there are also big diversions happening between Germany and Japan but “those have moved south, rather than finding a new direction in which to travel.” It adds a few hours, “but it’s not as extreme on the map.”
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Slots and schedules
No one knows how long the current situation will continue, but in the weeks and months ahead, airlines will be working hard to figure out their new routes and schedules.
This isn’t just a question of economic factors, but will also involve battling for airport slots as aviation’s carefully plotted world of flight paths and schedules has been thrown into disarray.
Despite stopovers no longer being a technical necessity, Anchorage’s strategic location will still be an appealing factor.
Before the geopolitical landscape changed so dramatically, a new long-haul airline, Northern Pacific Airways, was already planning to launch an international service between the US and Asia through Anchorage as a base, although that’s still subject to government approval.
For now, Petchenik suggests we keep watching the skies.
“It’s not necessarily the airports that are busier, but the airspace,” he says. “A lot of the traffic that would normally route through Russia is moving south, so you’re seeing increased traffic over Turkey, Romania [and] places in Eastern Europe.”
His prediction is that in the near future, “We’ll see an increased compression of where aircraft are flying. For example, Finnair, their business model was predicated on taking a shortcut through Russia to reach Eastern Asia and without the ability to do that, which direction do they travel?”
In the times ahead, he says, polar routes – up through Norway, then down through Canada and Alaska – “might be the most interesting.”