The Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. Picture: 123RF/ANDREW F KAZMIERSKI
The Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. Picture: 123RF/ANDREW F KAZMIERSKI

Washington — As runways around the world have fallen nearly silent in recent months due to the pandemic, one US airport stood out: Anchorage, Alaska.

Sitting about halfway between Asia’s industrial centres and North America, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has been booming with cargo shipments, including loads of masks and other medical equipment, aboard planes stopping to refuel.

At least several times in recent weeks — such as April 25 and May 2 — it topped all other US commercial airports, including traditional powerhouses such as Atlanta and Chicago, with the most flights, according to the airport and newly released federal data. For April, it was ranked 10th and flights exceeded those at New York City’s three commercial airports and the corporate jet hub in Teterboro, New Jersey, combined.

By some counts, it has been the world’s busiest. It’s an upside-down honour that makes airport manager Jim Szczesniak uncomfortable. “Being the world’s busiest is not a title we want,” he said of the facility, where the terminals feature life-size stuffed animals such as a moose and grizzly bear. “The world’s busiest airport is a bad situation for us to be in. It just shows you how bad the passenger side of the house is doing right now.”

Flights into and out of the 520 US airports with air-traffic towers fell 54.5% in April, compared with the same month last year, according to US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data. That’s 2.5-million fewer operations.

Air carrier operations plunged by an even greater margin, to 442,998, a drop of about two-thirds from a year earlier, as financially ravaged airlines parked planes and trimmed schedules in a desperate attempt to survive. Passenger counts have dropped by more than 90% from last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

“I don’t think this is anything that any of us could have imagined,” said Hassan Shahidi, an industry veteran who is president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation.

The sudden, unprecedented downturn has been “an extremely stressful event,” said Shahidi, who has been hosting webinars with industry and government leaders to examine the potential for a decrease in safety. “You have a significant impact on the workforce, be it pilots, mechanics, the flight crew — the uncertainty and hardship on that community.”

Some of the hardest hit airports were in New York, the US epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak.

NYC airports

The four major airfields in and near New York City — LaGuardia, John F Kennedy, Newark Liberty and Teterboro — had just 14,848 flights last month, down from 122,596 a year ago, a drop of about 88%. Indeed, LaGuardia had the steepest fall, 92%, of any large commercial airport.

The nation’s busiest airline hubs all took huge hits. Atlanta’s Hartsfield, Los Angeles International and Chicago’s O’Hare each lost more than two-thirds of landings and take-offs, according to the FAA.

But the decline hasn’t been consistent.

Several dozen airports — particularly those in warm-weather states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona — remained close to April 2019 levels. Some even saw increases in flights.

Most of them had little, if any, airline or commercial charter operations, focusing instead on private-plane operators, flight schools and military aircraft.

Deer Valley Airport outside Phoenix, a popular spot for flight training and private flying, became the busiest US airport by far in April with 35,357 flights. Its traffic fell by 12.5%, but was still more than 10,000 above the next highest, O’Hare, according to FAA.

Training facility

Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona, was the fourth busiest, in part because a pilot-training facility there was deemed an essential business and continued to operate, airport director Corinne Nystrom said. The airport has more than 100 businesses on its grounds, helping to provide a buffer during downturns.

“It doesn’t seem as though the ops have changed that much,” she said. “You hear planes all day long. The noise complaints are still coming in.”

As for Anchorage, “it’s a tale of two cities at our airport”, Szczesniak said. Alaska’s largest city has seen a steep decline in passenger operations, he said. Ravn Air Group, which is based there and served scores of cities in the state, halted operations and filed for bankruptcy last month as a result of the virus-caused downturn. Tourism in the state has also fallen dramatically.

As a result, passenger traffic is down 88%, Szczesniak said, which matches trends in the rest of the US. Gates for passenger planes now often sit empty and Alaska Airlines has parked several jets it no longer uses on the tarmac.

At the same time, cargo operations have surged. Both FedEx and UPS have facilities at the airport. and it’s being used by many others. A jet owned by the New England Patriots football team stopped in Anchorage last month while bringing N95 protective masks to Massachusetts, Szczesniak said.

Because jets traversing the Pacific Ocean on the shortest routes mostly fly over or near Alaska anyway, it’s a convenient spot to refuel. Unlike passenger aircraft that have enough range to fly from the US to Asia without stopping, it’s more economical for cargo haulers to carry heavier loads and less fuel, he said.

Anchorage, with its long runways — one at 380m — and relatively few weather-related flight delays, offers a convenient place for refueling.

Monthly cargo

Last month, it landed 263,000 tonnes of cargo, a 17% increase over the same month in 2019.

Overall, the airport has lost 20.5% of its traffic. On a handful of days — Saturdays, when traffic tends to fall at other airports — it has reigned as the world’s busiest, according to Szczesniak and government data.

Like other airports, Anchorage is doing what it can to reduce costs. It cut back on shuttle buses to parking lots, turned off escalators and moving walkways and shut some restrooms, Szczesniak said. But, for now, the cargo traffic is keeping its staff and many airport businesses busy.

Based on discussions with carriers, he expects the pace to continue throughout the summer. The longer-term prospects are less clear, though. “After that, everything is so uncertain — passenger and cargo.”