Steady growth forecast for major Alaska airports

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities recently released its forecast summaries for both Ted Stevens Anchorage International and Fairbanks International airports.

The reports were prepared to provide the Alaska International Airport System, or AIAS, with data regarding trends in both passenger and cargo traffic through both airports, which will be used to aid in long-term planning strategies for both airports, according to an internal AIAS letter available on its website.

Numbers in each summary “represent current economic uncertainties and trends and are a reasonable estimate of long term future activity levels,” the letter states.

According to both summaries, led by HNTB Corp. of Arlington, Va., they do not take in to account capacity constraints of either location, rather they assume changes in traffic levels will be accounted for by recent or future airport upgrades.

The summaries use 2010 statistics for baseline numbers and project out to the year 2030 for all airport traffic predictions.

The Stevens Airport Forecast Summary estimates a 700,000-passenger increase in total enplaned passenger traffic through the facility over the 20-year period. That equates to just over a 22 percent increase from the roughly 2.4 million travelers who went through Stevens Airport in 2010.

Enplaned passengers are those making their initial departure or final stop on a trip, as opposed to transit passengers using the airport to connect flights without passing through a security checkpoint.

While the sheer bulk of the projected increased activity at Anchorage Airport will be due to domestic passengers, enplaned international traffic is expected to climb from 31,700 passengers to nearly 58,000, an 82 percent rise, according to the summary.

During a presentation at the World Trade Center Alaska: Trade is Transportation Conference on Oct. 10, Stevens Airport Manager John Parrott said Russian carrier Yakutia Airlines and Icelandair have announced plans to start regular summer service to Anchorage starting in spring 2013. Parrott also said airport officials expect an overall increase in traffic from European tourists in the future.

In contrast, transit passenger levels, particularly international transit passengers, are expected to virtually disappear almost immediately, according to the summary. In 2010, more than 165,000 international transit passengers passed through Stevens Airport. That number is anticipated to drop by nearly 89 percent to 18,000 passengers by 2015.

Domestic transit service is projected to decrease 55 percent from its 2010 level of 22,000 passengers over the same period.

The biggest reason for the decline is the use of newer, larger aircraft by international carriers, Parrott said.

“The (Boeing) 777 makes it unnecessary and not as efficient for carriers to stop in Alaska,” he said.

The Anchorage forecast summary furthers Parrott’s statement, predicting “that the introduction of additional long-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 787, coupled with security requirements and competitive pressures from other Asian and U.S. carriers, will force remaining transit carriers to operate non-stop.”

Any future transit activity will be from charters flying smaller and older aircraft and from a small number of passengers flying on cargo carriers.

Total traffic passing through Anchorage Airport is predicted to rise from nearly 2.6 million passengers to about 3.1 million in 2030, a 21 percent increase. These numbers include air taxi passengers, considered a separate category from domestic and international passengers. Their 1.2 percent annual growth over the 20-year period helps offset the loss of transit passengers in terms of the overall numbers.

The Fairbanks summary predicts an increase similar to that of Stevens Airport in total passenger traffic, enplaned and transit passengers. The Fairbanks airport serviced 519,000 passengers in 2010 and that number is expected to increase by 26 percent to just over 654,000.

Stevens Airport is the fifth-largest cargo hub in the world, Parrott said, and he expects that cargo to continue to pass through the airport at a very high rate. However, new planes with larger capacities and longer ranges combined with expansion of new world markets will impact how that cargo is delivered and where it comes from, at both Anchorage and Fairbanks airports in the coming years, according to the summaries.

Boeing’s 747-200F, which has long been the standard aircraft for long haul freighters, has a range of 3,800 miles at full payload. The McDonnell Douglas MD-11F, and the larger 747-400F and 800, push range limits to more than 5,000 miles, as does the Boeing 777.

Currently, Stevens Airport and Fairbanks International Airport handle about 77 percent of non-transfer cargo flights from Asia en route to North America.

That number is expected to fall to 55 percent by 2030, largely due to freight carriers evolving their fleets to be comprised of long-range aircraft that don’t need to make stops in Alaska to refuel, the summary explains.

Still, carriers must trade-off between flying at maximum payload and carrying less fuel or flying less-than-full planes with more fuel, and thus longer flight ranges. For Alaska’s largest airports this means fewer landings, but larger cargo loads. According to the summary “total eastbound cargo flowing through AIAS airports is expected to increase from about 1.7 million tons to 3.1 million tons,” over the same time.

A similar situation exists with westbound cargo. While traffic will fall from 63 percent to 39 percent of all non-transfer North America to Asia-bound cargo flights, total cargo should see an increase from 0.7 million tons to 1.3 million tons between the two airports.

As would be expected, Anchorage Airport sees many times more cargo activity than Fairbanks Airport. In 2010 Anchorage saw a total of nearly 5 million tons of cargo freight pass through its airport, to make it the fifth largest airfreight port in the world, Parrott said, while Fairbanks moved 38,000 tons.

Over the next 20 years Anchorage Airport can expect its freight load to increase by 76 percent to 8.8 million tons. Fairbanks Airport, it’s predicted, will move 49,000 tons in 2030, a 29 percent increase, according to the summary. For both airports, intra-Alaska cargo amounts are expected to remain fairly flat, meaning the increases will come in cargo moving to and from the greater North America and Asia.

Both forecast summaries note that much of how future Asian-origin cargo traffic is routed will determine on which country it is coming from. China, Asia’s fastest growing economy, is farther from North America than Japan, the region’s slowest growing economy.

If that trend holds, “an increasing percentage of Asia-North America air cargo will need to be transported a greater distance – a factor that would increase the number of flights which require a technical stop,” the summary notes, referring to refueling in Alaska.

This could be good news for Alaska’s largest airports.

In his presentation at the Oct. 10 trade conference, Parrott said he is encouraged looking at Anchorage and Fairbanks airports as partners. A recent agreement between the two means aircraft with a flight-plan leading to one can be diverted to the other without being charged an additional landing fee. The original fee will cover the unexpected landing. This is a convenience issue for international carriers, particularly those hauling cargo, because Anchorage and Fairbanks are a ten-minute flight detour away from each other, Parrot said.

Additionally, being separated by the Alaska Range provides a weather barrier between the two. That barrier has prevented Anchorage and Fairbanks from ever being closed simultaneously, assuring aircraft on long international journeys will always have a place to land, Parrott noted. It may not seem outwardly important, he said, but it’s one of several reasons why he see’s a bright future for Alaska’s large airports.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/11/2016 - 4:05pm