Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 3:38 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Anchorage airport passenger counts up

By Tim Bradner
Morris News Service - Alaska

Passenger counts are up so far for 2011 at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport, an indication of an improved tourist season.

International air-freight, the airport's real money-maker, is running about even with last year, airport manager John Parrott told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce July 11.

Passengers boarding aircraft in Anchorage were up 2 percent in April, the latest month for which data is available, and 3.4 percent in March. However, levels are well below what they were in 2008, Parrott said.

"Cargo has been volatile. We were up in January over January 2010, down in February, and have been up and down since. It's an effect of the lingering recession," Parrot said.

As an illustration, cargo landed weight was down almost 10 percent in May, but was up 7.7 percent in March, according to airport statistics.

U.S. businesses are uncertain about how much inventory to maintain, which creates uncertainty in the air-cargo supply chain from China, where goods are made.

"Our cargo business depends on people in North America buying stuff and people in Asia making it," Parrott said. "Cargo movements through Anchorage are a good indicator of the overall economy."

Freight movements are not back to the good years of 2007 and 2008, but they are a lot healthier than in 2009, when deep recession hit the U.S.

Availability of fuel in Anchorage has been a concern of cargo carriers over the past two years because of reductions in the ability of Alaska refiners to supply the fuel. This is now easing, with more jet fuel being imported from Asia.

Air carriers are now able to buy imported fuel for less than they pay for fuel made in Alaska refineries, Parrott said.

A consortium of airlines currently is adding more tanks to store fuel at the airport in Anchorage, which will increase the industry's flexibility in buying fuel, he said.

The big fuel consumers are the Boeing 747 cargo jets, which take on 40,000 gallons at a time. Boeing 737 passenger jets, in contrast, need only about 5,000 gallons in refueling.

Still, there are a lot of passenger jets flying in and out of Anchorage, with an average of 20 departures a day to Seattle and 10 to Fairbanks.

On the passenger side, Parrott said Jet Blue, a carrier new to Alaska, has been able to operate its new direct service between Anchorage and Long Beach, Calif., at a profit in its first year because of a good cargo business the company has developed in tandem with passenger service.

Southbound shipments of fish have been particularly profitable for Jet Blue, he said.

The airport has a marketing effort under way to attract carriers that fly to new cities, not just new carriers flying in combination, and has an incentive program offering discounted fees for new carriers.

In the "city-pair" marketing, Parrott and other airport officials note that while the summer offers a good volume of tourists traveling, there is still a core group of Alaskans who travel year-round on business and pleasure.

Passenger traffic through Anchorage typically reaches 250,000 a month in summer, dropping to about 150,000 monthly through the winter months.

"Alaskans travel year-round, and there are a lot of us who like to get out of here to warmer climates in January and February," Parrott said.

There are also efforts under way to re-establish direct international passenger service.

China Airlines stopped its direct passenger service to Taipei from Anchorage last March. The Taiwanese carrier had stopped in Anchorage to refuel on flights from New York and Chicago to Taiwan, and made seats available both to and from Asia for passengers boarding in Anchorage.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Alaskans had multiple destinations in Europe and Asia to which they could fly direct from Anchorage because international passenger carriers refueled in Alaska and also took on passengers.

The opening of Soviet airspace to international airlines in the 1980s and the development of long-range passenger jets led to and end to most international passenger service in Alaska, however.

Many cargo jets now have the ability to fly to their destinations nonstop but it makes more sense for them to carry more freight and less fuel, and to stop in Alaska to top off their tanks, Parrott said.

Parrott said the airport has been marketing its special federal authority for international cargo carriers to transfer freight between planes in Anchorage before flights continue to final destinations. This is available only for Alaska airports. In other U.S. cities where foreign carriers stop the cargo must continue on the same plane to the final destination.

Tim Bradner can be reached at