Anchorage, Alaska plays a key role in the transport of international goods. Why Anchorage? The summers are nice, but winters are long and dark. Weather, earthquakes, and even volcanoes present logistical challenges. So, why does cargo transported between North America and Asia make a pit stop in Anchorage?
Anchorage Airport Stats
Ted Stevens – Anchorage International is one of our planet’s most important cargo hubs. A few stats from the Alaska Department of Transportation:
- Anchorage is less than 9.5 hours from 90% of the industrial world
- #2 in the US for landed weight of cargo aircraft
- 4th busiest airport in the world for cargo throughput
Data provided by FlightRadar24 shows over 8300 cargo flights arriving and departing Anchorage International in May 2023. Cargo flights departed to or arrived from 103 different locations during the time period.
The number of cargo airlines stopping in Anchorage is impressive (not an exhaustive list):
|Air China (Beijing)||FedEx|
|Cargolux||NCA (Nippon Cargo)|
|Cathay Pacific||Polar Air Cargo|
|China Airlines (Taipei)||Singapore Cargo|
|China Cargo (Shanghai)||Suparna (Shanghai)|
|EVA Air||Western Global|
The above list doesn’t include local cargo airlines like Northern Air Cargo, Lynden, ACE, Everts, and others. These carriers provide vital service to remote Alaska communities.
Anchorage & Passenger Airlines
From the 1940s until early 1990s, passenger airlines used Anchorage as a “technical (tech) stop” (fuel and crew change) for routes between North America, Europe, and Asia.
There are more direct routes between Europe and Asia, but at the time, Soviet and Chinese airspace was unavailable for most carriers. Airlines flew a polar route from Europe to Anchorage before continuing to Tokyo.
In the 1990s, passenger airlines were able to skip the Anchorage stop thanks to new long range aircraft and changing geopolitical climate. As Anchorage passenger traffic declined, cargo traffic exploded.
Location, Location, Location
Anchorage seems like such an out-of-the way place to rack up impressive stats. What brings all these aircraft to Alaska? Don’t be fooled by the flat maps in elementary school classrooms.
Flat Maps are Distorted
Cartographers have the challenging task of projecting a spherical earth onto a flat map. Center areas of the map are fairly accurate, but land masses and distances become distorted north and south of center.
What’s the shortest route between North America and Asia? Anchorage appears to be quite a few miles out of the way. The map seems to indicate Hawaii might be a more efficient stop (certainly better weather). To gain a better perspective of where Alaska is situated on the globe, a spherical representation is needed.
Earth is an Oblate Spheroid
The earth is a slightly squished sphere. If you have a globe sitting around the house, take a close look at it. Stretch a string between Chicago and Tokyo. Wiggle the string until you find the shortest route. It’s an interesting, sometimes surprising exercise. Try other routes, like Chicago to Beijing.
No globe? The animation below shows the shortest route (great circle route) between Louisville, KY (UPS Worldport) and Tokyo. The route crosses almost directly over Anchorage.
Geopolitical issues often impact the route aircraft must fly. The first graphic below depicts a few great circle routes between North America and Asia. The next graphic displays the same city pairs using the North Pacific Route System (NOPAC) to avoid Russian airspace. Almost all flights are routed over Anchorage. So, how do cargo airlines use this to their advantage?
Stop in Anchorage vs. Non-Stop
Aircraft can only carry so much weight. If a flight needs to fly a long distance, then it must carry a lot of fuel, but sacrifice cargo. An aircraft flying a shorter distance carries less fuel, and can accommodate more cargo.
There are a few regular cargo flights that fly non-stop between North America and Asia; Both UPS and Fedex fly time-critical non-stops from their hubs in Louisville and Memphis to Tokyo.
Most North America/Asia cargo flights make a pit stop in Anchorage. The aircraft carry far less fuel than a non-stop, and as a result can haul a lot more cargo. When an aircraft lands in Anchorage, cargo can be moved to other aircraft heading to different destinations (nice efficiency boost). In some cases, the cargo stays on the aircraft while the jet is fueled, then continues to the destination with a fresh crew. This is often called a “Gas & Go.”
A typical Anchorage pit-stop departs Louisville’s UPS Worldport around 3am local and arrives in Anchorage at 6am. The aircraft then leaves Anchorage 3 hours later, arriving in Tokyo at 9am local for afternoon deliveries.
Eastbound flights depart various Asia airports at 9pm local, arriving in Anchorage at noon. The jets depart Anchorage with fresh crews around 2pm, arriving at Louisville’s Worldport hub at midnight – perfect timing for the cargo to be sorted and flown to North America destinations for morning delivery.
Geographically, Anchorage is the perfect location for a trans-Pacific pit stop. But the weather is all over the map.
Late spring and summer provide heavenly weather and excellent flying conditions in Alaska. If you visit on a land or cruise vacation, you’ll fall in love with the foliage and wildlife. Alaska’s fresh produce is second to none. Long, sunny days and highs in the mid-sixties (°F) grow amazing fruits and vegetables. I love long layovers in Anchorage during the summer.
The Alaska aviation community comes to life in the spring. It’s a plane spotter’s dream. But, enough about Alaska’s four months of good weather…
Anchorage weather provides special challenges for aircraft operators. Thanks to the North Pacific and Alaska Coastal currents, Anchorage has relatively mild winters compared to the state’s interior. But it can still get quite cold and very snowy.
From the years 2000-2022, Anchorage’s average snowfall was about 74 inches/year. All that snow keeps aircraft deicing crews busy from October to May. The following video was shot in November, 2022 during a moderate snowfall event. Warmly dressed crews in four deicing trucks apply Type-4 fluid to the wings and tail surfaces of a UPS Boeing 747-8F. On this particular day, the pilots had about 50 minutes after deicing to takeoff before the deicing fluid holdover time expired.
The Alaska Department of Transportation does an amazing job keeping the airport open in the worst winter weather. Snow removal teams perform a well rehearsed ballet to clear a snow covered runway in a matter of minutes. Crews alternate between the two parallel runways so aircraft can continue to arrive and depart. Anchorage International is always open.
Here’s a small taste of winter operations at Anchorage International:
Free Daily Airshows!
Anchorage has four very busy, tower-controlled airports within a four mile radius. A variety of aircraft are always in the Anchorage skies.
Merrill Field, located a mile east of downtown, has been an active airport (at times, one of the busiest in the world) since 1930. Over 800 small aircraft are based at Merrill. The airport has two asphalt runways and a 2000′ gravel runway used seasonally as a snow runway for ski-equipped aircraft.
Ted Stevens – Anchorage International
Ted Stevens International handles all the passenger and cargo airline traffic. If you like watching heavy metal, this is the place to be. Northern Lights Blvd and Point Woronzof Road are popular picnic spots for aircraft spotters.
Lake Hood – World’s Busiest Seaplane Base
Adjacent to Anchorage International is Lake Hood, home to nearly 800 seaplanes and wheeled aircraft.
Lake Hood has three landing areas (water runways) for seaplanes and one gravel runway for wheeled aircraft. During the winter months, the frozen lake is maintained for aircraft with skis.
The seaplane base averages 190 flights a day. It’s great fun to watch the seaplanes. If you visit in the summer, rent a bicycle for a leisurely ride around the base.
An unusual control tower arrangement allows Anchorage International and the world’s busiest seaplane base to coexist. Anchorage tower is located within sight of both airports.
The tower is staffed by two sets of controllers; one for Ted Stevens International and the other for Lake Hood. Each airport has its own set of communication frequencies (they share the same Clearance Delivery frequency). The airspace and traffic flow is designed to accommodate big Boeings and single-engine seaplanes. It’s an amazing thing to see.
Elmendorf Air Force Base
If heavy cargo jets and seaplanes aren’t enough, how about some Raptors? (Yes, please!) Just seven miles Northeast of Ted Stevens is Elmendorf Air Force Base. The sounds of F-22 Raptors an C-17 Globemasters can be heard downtown on most weekdays. Look up and watch the action!
Anchorage’s Daily Airshow
I created the following four minute video using media I shot over the last 12 years. The video is a good representation of the aircraft arriving and departing daily at Ted Stevens International (and one from Lake Hood).
One of the best airshows in Alaska (and Canada) is provided by earth’s magnetosphere. Northern Lights, or the Aurora (named after the Roman goddess of the dawn) occur year-round, but are most easily visible in the northern hemisphere between August and April when the night skies are darkest. The first image shows the lights of downtown Anchorage on the horizon.