Anchorage: World’s Cargo Hub

Why do cargo airlines stop in Anchorage?

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?

A UPS 747 lifts off as another UPS 747 waits to cross the runway in Anchorage on a clear, fall afternoon.
A pair of UPS 747s depart Anchorage
Flight Radar 24 logo
This feature first appeared at FlightRadar24, July, 2023

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.

View of the earth from over the North Pole. 103 route lines emanate from Anchorage to points in North America, Asia, and Europe.
103 nonstop cargo flights to/from Anchorage in May 2023. Data provided by FlightRadar24. Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper.

The number of cargo airlines stopping in Anchorage is impressive (not an exhaustive list):

Air China (Beijing)FedEx
AsianaKalitta Air
AtlasKorean Air
CargoluxNCA (Nippon Cargo)
Cathay PacificPolar Air Cargo
China Airlines (Taipei)Singapore Cargo
China Cargo (Shanghai)Suparna (Shanghai)
China SouthernUPS
EVA AirWestern 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.

Subscription Form

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.

black and white photo shows the old Anchorage control tower in background. The tail of a SAS DC-7 in the foreground.
In 1957, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) began service between Copenhagen and Tokyo, using Anchorage as a tech stop. Photo: SAS Douglas DC-7 in Anchorage.

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.

Rectangular map of east Asia and North America centered over Hawaii. A course line is drawn from the Chicago to Anchorage, then to Tokyo. A single straight line from Chicago to Tokyo appears to be shorter.
A straight line on a flat map does not necessarily indicate the shortest route

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.

Animation of Earth centered over the North Pacific with a curved line connecting Louisville, Kentucky to Tokyo. As the earth rotates toward the viewer, the line appears to straighten. The earth stops centered over Anchorage showing a perfectly straight line over Anchorage connecting Louisville and Tokyo
Animation created with the Foreflight navigation app.

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?

Two images of earth centered over North Pole. First image shows 11 great circle routes from various North America cities to various Asia cities. The routes pass over northern Canada and Alaska. 2nd image shows the same routes using NOPAC routes. Most routes fly nearly overhead Anchorage.
Great circle routes on the left, routes to avoid Russian airspace on the right. Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper

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.

White, blue and gold Atlas 747 taxis by a white and brown UPS MD-11 on the takeoff roll.
Atlas Air 747-400 & UPS MD-11 departing Anchorage runway 15

Anchorage Weather

Geographically, Anchorage is the perfect location for a trans-Pacific pit stop. But the weather is all over the map.

Beautiful Weather

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…

Challenging 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.

A UPS 747 being deiced during moderate snowfall in Anchorage.

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.

Time lapse of 10 vehicles including snowplows, sweepers, and salt spreaders clearing and treating a taxiway.
Snow crews sweeping & treating taxiway Tango in Anchorage

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

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.

Aerial view of Lake Hood next to Ted Stevens International airport. There are several peninsulas on the lake with numerous seaplane docks. There are 3 long rows of parking for wheeled aircraft next to a compressed gravel runway.
2012 photo of Lake Hood by “N727RH” – Wikimedia Commons

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.

Airport diagram depicting parking peninsulas (fingers), gravel runway,  and 3 water landing areas.
Lake Hood airport diagram depicting three water landing areas

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.

A photo of the tall Anchorage air traffic control tower. A satellite image shows the tower's location between the two airports.
Control Tower serving Ted Stevens International and Lake Hood

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).

Northern Lights

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.


  1. And on the very day I remembered this blog and decided to read some stories again, you came back. Most fortunate circumstances!

  2. Wow this post is really interesting in so many ways. Had no idea of the history of Anchorage. Have looked up the airport on flightradar24. Air traffic controllers have to be very good with all the flights.

  3. Thanks for this Ken! And you sure are correct about retirement – I sure am busier than I ever thought, too.

Don't just sit there... Say something!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.