Despite passenger numbers sinking, cargo operations see major uptick at TSAIA
While passenger numbers for airlines around the world tanked due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has seen a major upswing in the other side of its flight operations.
"It's like a Tale of Two Cities here," said TSAIA Manager Jim Szczesniak. "The passenger side of the house has been very depressed, but the cargo side of the house has been doing very, very good."
Visitor numbers - and those taking advantage of flying into Anchorage's largest airport - had been on the upswing for several years, with TSAIA generally serving more than 5 million passengers annually. However, shortly after Anchorage welcomed a chartered flight on Kalitta Air out of Wuhan, China, on Jan. 28 as part of a repatriation mission, TSAIA officials "suspended indefinitely" all passenger and cargo flights to the United States from the Chinese city. Since then, passenger flights into Alaska and around the globe hit a near standstill, but have since slowly increased, if only incrementally.
All the while, the airport's foothold on the world's cargo operations remained steadfast.
"Especially now, with the pandemic crisis, we're moving a lot of humanitarian aid and assistance all over the world," said Mike Spillane, Station Manager for Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo, both owned by Atlas Air Worldwide and with hubs in Anchorage. "Normally, this is a slow time for air cargo - first quarter - but we're as busy now as we are during our peak."
Perhaps even more impressive, however, is that while the airport is generally recorded as fifth busiest in the world for cargo operations - with 79 percent of all Asia to North America freighter aircraft taking advantage of Anchorage's offer of a stopover - TSAIA even became the busiest airport in the world for several dates over the past few months. Plus, cargo flights can load more goods and less fuel when crews have the opportunity to stop and refuel in Anchorage.
"Anchorage is very important to these cargo operators, because it allows them to fill the airplane with cargo and only half with fuel," said Szczesniak, explaining that because passenger planes - which tend to carry a large amount of cargo in their bellies - are not flying and carrying as much cargo right now, demand for freight flights has skyrocketed. "Then they can fly to Anchorage, refuel, and then continue on their way. If not, they'd have to fill the planes full of fuel and half with cargo, and that economically doesn't work for them."
The massive influx of cargo traffic is visible not only in the back-to-back landings of freighters on a daily basis, but also in the numbers. Polar Air, for example, which operates cargo flights out of more than a dozen hubs in the United States, has seen a major upswing in demand. The airport as a whole is also seeing larger flight numbers with fuller planes.
"We've seen an incredible uptick in flight activity," said Norm Odsather, ANC Terminal Services Assistant Manager. "This same May of last year, we did about 440 flights through Anchorage – this year, we did about 600, carrying everything from medical supplies, PPE, to any kind of goods the general public needs."
A major landing space for Asian freighters in particular, the airport is also fewer than nine-and-a-half hours from 90 percent of the industrial world, according to officials, and was last recorded as second in the United States for landed weight of cargo aircraft.
"The economy is still moving," Odsather said, "just moving a little slower, and we're here to carry it."