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Cargo

Fish or fuel?

Plans to make Anchorage a key transit hub have failed to materialise. Instead, it remains a tech stop and a centre for key seafood exports, finds Ian Putzger
 

Management of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) is currently finalising a master plan which envisages, among other steps, a new runway. According to the airport authority this will take about a decade to materialise. However, there is no sense of urgency at Anchorage in regard to cargo facilities, especially after it took time to find new users for two structures at the former Kulis Air National Guard base adjacent to the airport, which closed in 2011, reverting back to being property of the state of Alaska. In a recent update the airport authority reported signs of improvement, but noted that its cargo business had still not fully recovered – a reflection of the reduced number of freighters moving between North America and Asia.

 

However, anchorage continues to stand tall in the global gateway hierarchy. In June the Alaskan airport recorded a throughput of 207,373 tonnes, which put it fifth in the global airport rankings in terms of cargo throughput.

 

This was of little solace for the airport authority, though, as volume continued to slide, going down 0.4% in June. Moreover, the airport’s detractors have stressed that little of the cargo that passes through Anchorage ever sees the ramp; most stays on freighters as they fuel up on their routes between Asia and the US.

 

It was not supposed to be that way. The plan was for airlines to transfer freight between their flights – US operators like the integrators shifting containers bound for different Asian gateways, with Asian carriers juggling ULDs to and from the US East Coast, West Coast and the Midwest, as well as transits between Asian and US carriers.

 

For some time there was transfer activity from carriers like Northwest Airlines and Korean Air, but today ANC is a pure fuel stop for most operators. “We mostly use Anchorage as a tech stop,” confirms James Woodrow, director of cargo at Cathay Pacific.

 

In some cases the airport has been cut out of US-Asia routings altogether. “Since the elimination of the older -200 freighters, only the Midwest and East Coast freighters stop in ANC now when travelling to and from Asia.  The West Coast services generally go non-stop,” says Shawn McWhorter, president for the Americas of Nippon Cargo Airlines. The Japanese carrier now serves the US exclusively with Boeing 747-8 equipment.

 

For UPS, Anchorage is a major transit point. The integrator slots about 90 flights per week through the airport on their way to Asia, with the same number headed back to the lower 48 states. Westbound flows continue to UPS hubs in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while inbound traffic is headed for Ontario, Rockford and Louisville.

 

Still, all that volume does not translate into activity on the ramp. “In terms of sorting air express packages, we don’t do that there,” a spokesman for UPS Airlines reports. “There is a little shuffling of containers between airplanes, but not much. Anchorage is primarily a tech stop for us.”

 

Some of Cathay’s westbound freighters only top up fuel in Anchorage, but some also load cargo, albeit not in large quantities.

 

“There is a little local business – mainly cod milt and some roe, but it’s not a lot and is very seasonal for January and February,” remarks McWhorter. 

 

The picture looks markedly different at Alaska Air Cargo, whose flights out of the state usually carry seafood.

 

“If we fly there, rest assured, we fly seafood there,” notes Betsy Bacon, the airline’s managing director of cargo. Besides the iconic salmon, Alaska Air Cargo moves halibut, cod, scallop, shrimp, crab, geoduck, sea urchin, roe and other seafood out of Alaska. Several of these species continue beyond the carrier’s network to destinations from Zurich through to Hong Kong, she adds.

 

The sizeable role seafood plays in the airline’s cargo business has prompted significant investment in its cold chain capabilities. In August 2014 a 1,800ft² cooler and a 1,600ft² freezer facility came on stream at Alaska Air Cargo’s hub in Seattle, as such the airline mandates annual cool chain training for all cargo frontline employees.

 

Although a large proportion of the seafood is seasonal, since 2007 Alaska Air Cargo has managed to even out its traffic through the expansion of services to Hawaii – which to date has accounted for 9% of its daily departures in 2014. “With this type of growth outside of Alaska, we have seen both our cargo and passenger business become more diverse; this has helped offset some of the seasonality we experience with the state of Alaska,” comments Bacon.

 

Still, business to, from and within Alaska remains at the core of the carrier’s activities, accounting for over 70% of its annual cargo. About 20% of this is made up of mail, which is “a mix of the many everyday goods residents need”, Bacon states; the remainder is made up of a variety of commodities topped by seafood, which constitutes about a quarter of the carrier’s freight volume.

 

Fluctuations in seafood volume weigh in heavily in the state’s cargo development. In the first six months of 2014, cargo moved to and from Alaska by US passenger carriers was off 2% from the volume recorded in the first half of 2013, which Bacon attributes partly to seafood tonnage: “Near-record seafood volumes were being transported out of Alaska in 2013, which is part of the reason we are seeing a decline in 2014,” she affirms.

 

The route network and passenger density in Alaska, combined with requirements for cargo lift, have kept Alaska Air Cargo in the maindeck business – the only one of the major US carriers. It currently operates one Boeing 737-400 freighter, plus five 737-400 combis, which fly within Alaska and on trunk routes to and from the airline’s home base in Seattle.

 

The way the fleet will look in a few years is still open for debate. Management is currently looking at long-range plans that include the replacement of the 737-400s with a more efficient and modern fleet, notes Bacon.


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