Alaska Wants To Become A Global Airline Hub

Filed Under: Alaska

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is a major global hub for cargo. The airport has the goal of becoming a global hub for passenger traffic as well.

Back in August I wrote about the permission that the state was seeking for the airport from the US Department of Transportation, and that has now been granted. So let’s go over what that means.

Alaska is a major air cargo hub

Anchorage Airport has long been one of the biggest air cargo hubs in the world. The airport has an ideal location for cargo crossing the Pacific, since you’d generally fly over Alaska while enroute from North America to Asia. Living in Miami, I’ve typically seen at least one cargo 747 per day coming from Anchorage.

While Anchorage has long been one of the top five cargo hubs in the world, during the pandemic the airport on some days took the top spot for being the all around busiest airport in terms of the number of aircraft movements.

The airport has certainly benefited from the increased cargo demand in recent months, as the demand for passenger traffic has declined.

Alaska has renewed its cargo authority

Back in August the state of Alaska filed with the Department of Transportation to renew and amend its exemption for expanded transfer authority and expanded air services for at least two years. This applies to “Alaska International Airports,” which includes the airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks (with the Anchorage one getting a lot more traffic).

This allows for both foreign and US airlines to engage in expanded cargo transfer activities at Alaska International Airports.

This is perhaps most easily explained in the form of an example. This means that two Cathay Pacific Cargo 747-8s could fly from Asia to Anchorage, and then in Anchorage they could transfer some cargo between the planes, before continuing to other points in the US (say Atlanta and Miami, for example). This requires a special authority, because usually foreign airlines couldn’t transfer cargo before operating what’s for all practical purposes a domestic flight.

Well, this week the Department of Transportation has extended this authority, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s the other part of what has been approved that’s much more interesting.

Anchorage Airport is a huge cargo hub

Alaska wants to become a global passenger hub

As part of the same filing, Alaska had requested significant exemptions from the Department of Transportation for passenger traffic as well, and these have been approved.

This was requested in order to “maintain and enhance the competitive position and profile of the State of Alaska and the Alaska International Airports as highly desirable and advantageous points of transit, transfer, and transshipment of international air cargo and passenger traffic.”

The state was seeking the following exemptions for foreign airlines, with the key update being that the term “passengers” was added (most of these exceptions previously only applied for cargo):

  • To transfer cargo and passengers from any of their aircraft to any of their other aircraft (i.e., on-line cargo transfers), provided that both aircraft are operating to/from a point in the carrier’s homeland;
  • To make changes, at points in Alaska, in the type or number of aircraft used to transport cargo and passengers, provided that in the outbound direction the transportation beyond Alaska is a continuation of the transportation from the carrier’s homeland to Alaska, and in the inbound direction, the transportation to the carrier’s homeland is a continuation of the transportation from behind Alaska (i.e., all forms of change of gauge for cargo and passenger operations, including “starburst” change of gauge);
  • To commingle cargo and passengers moving in foreign air transportation with cargo and passenger traffic not moving in foreign air transportation;
  • To discharge cargo and passenger traffic in Alaska for transfer to a U.S. carrier for onward carriage to a final destination in the United States or in a third country, and to uplift from Alaska cargo and passenger traffic transferred from a U.S. carrier which was transported by that carrier to Alaska from a point of origin elsewhere in the United States or in a third country (i.e., interline cargo transfers to/from U.S. carriers); and
  • To discharge passengers and cargo in Alaska for transfer to another foreign carrier for onward carriage to a final destination in a third country, and to uplift from Alaska passengers and cargo transferred from another foreign carrier which was transported by that carrier to Alaska from a point of origin in a third country (i.e., interline transfers of cargo moving in foreign air transportation to/from other foreign carriers).

If I’m understanding this correctly, the hope is essentially that Anchorage could be a hub for a foreign airline. In other words — and I’m making this example up — Air China could fly to Anchorage from Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, and then could offer connecting service from Anchorage to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington.

In Anchorage passengers could switch the planes they’re on, meaning that while a plane may fly from Beijing to Anchorage to Chicago, the passenger could transfer onto another Air China flight that’s continuing to another US destination.

There was a precedent for this, as Puerto Rico was granted a similar exception earlier this year. Go figure that not many airlines have actually taken advantage of this yet.

Could Anchorage become a hub for a foreign airline?

The avgeek in me loves this, but…

As an aviation geek, the thought of a major global hub in Anchorage excites me. How cool would it be to see an airline set up shop in Anchorage in the same way that Icelandair does in Keflavik? It would be very cool, and geographically it would make sense as a transpacific hub.

Back in the day Alaska Airlines even operated flights to Russia, which seems unfathomable at this point.

However, in practice going forward I just don’t see this happening:

  • Alaska makes sense as a cargo hub, so it seems like airlines are best off still operating all-cargo flights to & from Anchorage
  • A lot of global hubs (like San Francisco and Seattle) have big local business markets they can fill long haul flights with, in addition to connecting passengers
  • Back in the day a fuel stop in Anchorage was necessary, but with planes like the 787, there’s not really a need for stops anymore

Realistically I just don’t see this making sense. It sure would be cool to see some more transpacific passenger flights to Anchorage, though I’m not sure the transfer authority the state of Alaska is seeking would make much of a difference there.

Too bad Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly transpacific from Anchorage

Bottom line

The state of Alaska is hoping to replicate its cargo success with passenger traffic as well. The airline requested this permission from the US Department of Transportation back in August, and it has now been granted. Now we just have to wait for airlines to express interest. 😉

While there are lots of questions about what future airline route networks will look like, I have a hard time envisioning many airlines taking advantage of this opportunity.

What do you think — is there any chance that an airline could turn Anchorage into an international passenger hub?

  1. IF (big if) there is a market for S America to East Asia, this would be good for that. Not sure if there is though. I know there’s a few tag flights already but who knows what the demand truly is.

  2. What about the ridiculous practice of processing passengers through immigration and customs at the port of entry, before they carry on to their final destination? Did I understand it correctly that it might provide an exemption to this?

  3. In the 1970’s and 80’s, while working as a flight attendant for the Flying Tiger Line, our crews regularly laid-over in Anchorage during North Pacific flights between the U.S. and Asia. At that time, numerous European and Asian airlines also made fuel stops at Anchorage, and changed crews there as well, on flights between Europe and Asia; Air France, Sabena, Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, British Airways, Swissair, Aeroflot, Japan Air Lines and Korean Airlines among them.

    So many JAL flights transited Anchorage every day that Japanese restaurants sprang-up in the downtown area, catering to the large numbers of JAL 747 pilots and flight attendants on

    SAS and Lufthansa had so many crews laying-over in Anchorage that they rented blocks of apartments for them – furnished right down to the linens and cutlery. I know this because my boyfriend at the time was an SAS steward and he could bid to fly out of Anchorage rather than Copenhagen for six weeks at a time; something he loved to do in the winter because he was a skier and could spend days-off skiing at nearby Alyeska.

    Passengers on these long-haul flights often broke their journey and toured sites in Alaska, before continuing to their destination. Anchorage felt very ‘international’.

    When the longer-range 747’s came into service, such as the 300 and 400 models, airlines were able to fly nonstop between Europe and Asia – over the pole – and one-by-one the carriers ceased landing in Anchorage. The city suffered economically. I remember the Japanese restaurants that seemed to be there one layover, and were gone the next. They had depended on the JAL crews for their income. The fairly new international terminal at Anchorage airport, which had bustled with activity, became emptier and emptier. By the late 1980’s a Tiger 747 was sometimes the only plane at the gates.

    My last Flying Tiger layover in Anchorage was in September, 1992 ( I went on to fly for Northwest). The airport, and indeed much of downtown, seemed sadly empty to me. I remembered the fun of running into crew members from many countries in stores and restaurants and bars; men and women we often saw a few days later in Tokyo, since crews often stayed at the same big hotels.

    Perhaps Anchorage will once again become an airline hub. What goes around comes around…

  4. Intriguing idea, but also probably unrealistic. Alaska itself is too small of an O & D market to maintain much international service, let alone hub status. And then there’s the issue of customs and immigration, which all transfers would have to pass through upon entry. If you have to do that at ANC, why not just do it in SFO or ORD? Especially is that’s closer to home for you anyhow.

    While Alaska Airlines can make a nice little hub of ANC for service throughout Alaska (and connect to multiple destinations in the lower 48+HI), I don’t see it making sense for the likes of Cathay or Philippines or ANA. It did back in the day when you had to stop for fuel, but those days are long gone (as Lucky said).

  5. If you want Alaska or Anchorage be a global hub again, Russia,Ukraine, Kazachstan and other former SowjetRepublics should close its airspace. Do not use long haul aircrafts with ultra long ranges or juest turn the cloxk back in the 60s.

  6. If (big if) they really did get permission for transit zone connections (i.e., without immigration clearance), I can see this being a competitive advantage for transiting passengers from central/south america to asia, but I’m not sure if that market is really big enough. Otherwise, there might be some interesting opportunities to use narrow-body aircraft transpac from north america to NE asia.

  7. Anchorage used to be a Northwest Airlines hub with trans-Pacific flights. I think as recently as late 1990s or early 2000s.

  8. Normally, I would say that it’s a nice idea but not one that many, or even any carriers might be attracted to. It reminds me of QF trans-Pacific services of 30 years ago when they would fly three B747s into HNL from SYD, MEL and CNS and shuffle pax between them for onward flights to YVR, SFO and LAX. With current aircraft types, smaller and with longer range, non-stop services to and from multiple destinations in an Asian country and the US would make better business sense. That is as it would likely be under the old normal, but in a Covid world, traffic volumes might make this a viable model for perhaps Chinese carriers (and perhaps for US carriers that might not be bound by the need to limit it to services to a single Asian country).

    Over the last few years I’ve become accustomed to clearing customs and immigration in LAX when travelling on QF11 from SYD-JFK, it’s sort of annoying but not a big deal. That said, as a foreigner it’s passing strange that the US has no sterile international transit. I get that on the QF LAX-JFK flight there will be pax who break their journey in LA so operating it as US domestic makes some sense. That would probably be less of an issue in Anchorage, so it may be a worthwhile experiment for the US to offer sterile transit there, even between airlines.

  9. @GuruJanitor @Andy 11235

    There are actually quite a lot Japanese and Fujian Chinese in Peru, Brazil, and Suriname

  10. Bit surprised there is not at least one or two Asia flights, at least for tourism like the Alaska cruises.

  11. I suspect this is a play for Chinese and Japanese tour groups doing multi-week excursions to the US, rather than an attempt at a true connecting hub. As I found out on our recent trip, there are a ton of Asian tourists visiting Alaska during normal times. (Go to Yukon River Camp or Coldfoot, and you’ll find signs in Chinese and Japanese all over the place. They apparently go mostly in winter for the northern lights.) Fly to Alaska, spend a couple weeks there, then disperse to other US destinations. If the idea is, say, to just stick a few passenger seats on mostly cargo flights on a limited basis, there might be a niche market for it.

  12. Can you fly a single-aisle from East Asia to Anchorage and then another single-aisle from Anchorage to NA? If you can, then maybe you might see ultra-low-cost carriers. Not sure how much room is left for prices to go down though, with the big Chinese carriers flooding the skies.

  13. When I was a kid, I used to fly KAL from GIG to GMP. ANC was a stop on the flight, along with a connection on LAX or SFO. We would exit the plane, wait for them to refuel/clean/load food/etc… Then re-board the same plane. They would give this laminated coupon/boarding ticket the allowed you to re-board.

    Then they stopped landing in ANC.

  14. Doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if it could mean I go further into Asia from the US, why would anyone fly at least 3 hours (and up to 8 hours) to Anchorage to then get on a 7-12 hr flight to somewhere else. If people have to connect, they want to connect close to the origin or destination, not significant # of hours from either

  15. I’ve always been frustrated with the lack of direct flights from Hawaii to anywhere in Europe. I don’t picture direct flights happening anytime soon. Maybe Condor could do a Anchorage to HNL flight in addition to the one they already have from Frankfurt to Anchorage.

  16. @khatl – Anchorage is not significantly out of the way on flights from Conus to Asia. Flights from JFK fly far to the north of there if they follow a great circle, and even flights from say LAX to HKG can routinely fly overhead ANC (I’ve tracked flights friends were travelling on). The test on whether this makes business sense is more to do with whether an airline will find the ‘starburst’ route model centred on Anchorage more useful than point-to-point routes.

  17. Well, just like Icelandair connects between the US and Europe with narrobodies only(there are some B767s though), maybe ANC can make an East Asian Icelandair busness model. LCCs may fly between the US and East Asia with A321LR/XLR or B737 MAX 7. Other than that, I don’t see it as a viable option..

  18. If ANC became a hub, how much of Asia would be reachable via a narrowbody like the A321LR/A321XLR?

    Might be interesting for a LCC if large parts of Asia can be reached that way.

  19. @- – Most part of Japan(except the far southern areas like OKA) and South Korea(ICN) will be reachable from ANC with A321XLR. A321LR would be able to reach TYO at furthest but it’ll be very tight. CTS will be the most viable destination with A321LR.

  20. Question: BGO, OSL, LED, CPH to ANC by modern narrow body aircraft 737 MAX, A321 NEO, is it possible with reasonable (profitable) passenger loads? Then on to Hawaii. Alaska already had (pre Covid 19) ANC-Hawaii routes. Someday our state government will have to wake up to reality , that tourism will be on a smaller scale, and cannot be as dependent on-mass scale Asian tourism.

  21. IIRC, Qantas was allowed to accommodate transfers from other QF flights onto their LAX-JFK service. I don’t know where that flight originated, but let’s say Brisbane. So Brisbane passengers going to JFK would remain on the same flight, but pax coming off of QF flights from Sydney and Melbourne could also connect onto the flight.

  22. Alaska becoming a transatlantic hub may not be as far fetched as it seems.

    The extended range and game changing economics of the A321XLR could bring Alaska back into the transpacific game. The A321XLR has a published range of 8700 kms which means that it is possible to fly as Far East as Manila non-stop from Anchorage on a single aisle jet.

    This essentially means that an airline could offer one stop connections between North America and a multitude of secondary cities in China and North Asia- some of the most populous and economically dynamic regions in the world.

    While the A321XLR can easily offer a number of point to point transatlantic routings, the possibilities are far more limited transpacific. For example- an A321XLR from Tokyo would barely make it to San Francisco- Los Angles would be out of range. Essentially this means that flights from China and South Korea to the continental North America are only possible on higher capacity wide-bodies.

    Alaska and Hawaii are also the only viable mid-points- the latter involves a significant amount of backtracking on routes from North Asia to America. Alaska offers a near direct routing.

    Simply put an airline could create a similar business model as COPA has done in Panama which has successfully become a connecting point between North and South America with a fleet of 737s.

    Given that services from secondary Chinese cities to North America have been unsuccessful and low cost carriers have found it challenging to profitably operate widebody aircraft’s, Alaska could become a hub for a Chinese carrier or even LCCs like Air Asia, Jetstar or Spring.

    It may not be the most obvious choice to fly from Seoul to Seattle however it could be the only one stop connection for someone looking to fly from Wuhan to Denver or from Chongquing to San Diego.

    Given that the aviation industry is in the midst of a shake-up, this could well be possible as incumbent carriers either go under or scale back their operations. It also underpins the disruptive potential of the A321 XLR.

  23. Perhaps Thai Airways.
    They already need a stop to fly to North America, might as well allow connections in ANC (such as to LAX, JFK, etc.).

  24. If the A321XLR can land at DCA and Congress allows flights to Anchorage it could work for American. DCA is already a hub for them and would allow for Asia routes 1 stop.

  25. hey mike c,
    this “Honolulu shuffle” was also done by Singapore Airlines with 747-300s. two flights, one each via Hong Kong and Taipei, did the switch and then proceeded on to Los Angeles and San Francisco. it was great fun.

  26. Thanks, @kcb, I wasn’t aware of that.

    @Ryan L, the Qantas LAX shuffle had flights arriving from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, with one flight going onward to JFK. The aircraft was the one that came from Brisbane (B787) but it used the Sydney flight number. One trip I had one boarding pass with the same seat number for the two sectors even though they were on different aircraft types (SYD and MEL were A380s). Everyone had to clear customs and immigration in LA.

  27. As an Anchorage resident, I would love the idea of nonstop international service. LOVE IT. This summer–we didn’t have any. Next summer, we’re hoping our nonstop flights to KEF (FI) and FRA (DE) will return. Additionally, we’re hopeful to see a return of the weekly nonstop flight from Anchorage to Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky with Yakutia Air. But the idea of a hub-and-spoke system doesn’t work as well for international travelers as it does for cargo. Still, hope springs eternal. #fingerscrossed

  28. It makes sense. While aircraft might have extremely long ranges, they aren’t efficient flying such long ranges as you incur penalties on weight and payload not to mention the fuel inefficiencies early in flight to carry the entire fuel load. Most flights from the U.S. to Asia overfly Alaska (outside of flights from the west coast). As such, its hypothetically possible to see an Iceland-Air model of flying passengers between the Americas and Asia through Anchorage.

  29. I find it hard to believe that the US would allow for an alliance to operate what is essentially domestic passenger flights

  30. @Abey, “I find it hard to believe that the US would allow for an alliance to operate what is essentially domestic passenger flights”

    And yet, it’s been approved!

    Worry not, at best this might become a minimal number of passengers on flights entirely driven by cargo economics.

  31. @abey, I agree it’s hard to believe that the US would allow essentially domestic flight permission to foreign carriers, but there are shades of grey. Most countries (apart from the US) allow transit without clearing immigration (Ben did that in Montreal on a trip to Turkey earlier this year). As I mentioned up thread, Qantas operated a domestic US sector LAX-JFK but it was only available on a QF ticket that originated or terminated outside the US (a stopover in LA was allowed). The US would never allow a foreign airline or alliance to sell domestic sectors, but there is no reason why the US wouldn’t allow those carriers to operate such flights, and to carry pax with an international itinerary on them. Whether they had to clear US immigration at the point of arrival or at the final destination is a separate question.

  32. Eurowings is starting up service from Frankfurt which will be a very interesting feasibility test for this. Not sure I see the market there, but we’ll see how it does.

  33. Wow I’m amazed that it’s granted!
    I think it would be a good news to East Asian airlines based in second tier cities.
    Air Busan(BX) from South Korea also had a plan to fly to ANC with their A321LR(enabled by the extended range) but it’s on hold since the pandemic.
    Busan is the second largest city in South Korea but PUS, the airport in Busan, doesn’t have any long-haul route at all so Busaners always had to take a layover in ICN or NRT to travel to the US. When the pandemic’s over, BX may launch routes to the West Coast cities like LAX, SFO, SEA with a layover in ANC, or even a route to ATL considering the US manufacturing facilities of Hyundai(which is also based near Busan).

  34. In some ways AC does this at YYZ with flights to Asia for US east coast travelers. They have a decent network from the US to YYZ then load them all on the widebodies from YYZ to Asia. I’ve done this many times as the price in C was half the price of a direct flight, for example on IAD-NRT.

    The big difference is YYZ generates a lot of demand on its own, while ANC does not.

  35. @Super VC10 – I worked ground crew (aircraft refueler) in Anchorage in 1981-1982 and loved seeing all the big jets flying in from all over the world. It was enchanting to say the least for a 19/20 year dreaming of international travel. I remember seeing all the international flight crews in the terminals coming and going.

    I also remember fueling the Flying Tiger jets along with a ton of JAL planes. It was a memorable job, especially being outside on the North Ramp of the airport in the dead of winter at -20 degrees, standing on a lift under the wing of a giant 747 waiting for the fuel gauge to read full. I remember one plane taking 45 minutes to fill up. I was almost as frozen as a popsicle.

    Regardless, I wish Anchorage luck in their endeavor. Still have family there and still visit.

  36. I live in Anchorage. Full disclosure; We (before Covid) would regularly travel outside the US once or twice a year.

    Alaska (before Covid) would recieve over two million visitors a year. Many for cruises and/or land tours. Like Iceland if the airlines would allow it, many travelors would do a stop in Anchorage in the summer. There are fantastic winter sports but would attract a smaller group.

    I like it

  37. @Unionruler, only B737 MAX 7 can fly that far with enough margin for go-arounds, headwind, etc., but its seating capacity is too low. A321LR/XLR will be a far better fit.

  38. Many would underestimate the chance of such proposal, but actually there need only one factor to succeed:
    The existence of demand between second tier cities in Asia and second tier cities in America
    Then a model like Qatar or Emirates could actually make more sense, when you consider that they can’t otherwise sustain a point to point service, thus they are currently either having their transit elsewhere anyway

  39. Like what others have said similar QF LAX – JFK and yeah would be great if the US did introduce a sterile transit option.

  40. It is an interesting idea…
    For the Mainland Chinese carriers, they can perhaps fly from second or third tier cities to ANC, and then fly to major US cities. Anchorage is surely a cheaper and more convenient transit points.

    Maybe Bamboo Airways (Vietnam) can consider flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Anchorage, and then run two flights from Anchorage to Bay Area/SoCal.

    However, it sounds good on paper but hard to make it work in reality. But we can always dream!

  41. There are a couple of factors missing from the article. Alaska also has some special cargo transfer rights under something called the Stevens Amendment (49 U.S.C. § 41703) that allows a limited exception to the cabotage prohibition for certain cargo operations at Alaska such as cargo transfers between two foreign flag carriers at ANC. Also, foreign flag carriers can serve additional US points on an extrabilateral basis, where those additional US points would be served on flights also serving Alaska.

    Lastly, the most difficult hurdle for ANC to become another KEF are the visa requirements for foreign pax transfers in the USA and cabotage restrictions on a foreign flag carrier to carry passengers between two points in the USA. Nevertheless, it is possible we may begin to see narrow-body pax service between Harbin, China (HRB) and ANC and medium wide-body pax service between ANC other second and third tier Chinese cities.

  42. ANC does have an entire large modern terminal (the North terminal) which was built entirely to handle international flights. Sadly, these days the only flights arriving there are summer flights on Condor, Icelandair, and Yakutia plus the occasional winter flights on Japan Airlines for those hoping to see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately the JL flights can only be booked if originating in Japan. Otherwise, the North terminal sits eerily empty, with only the occasional visitor having a Global Entry interview there.

  43. Actually, I remember the time when YUL was a hub for Trans-Atlantic flights. At that time, the plane was not quite capable of flying more than 5,000 miles. However, as time goes, the planes can easily cover ETOPS180, even ETOPS360, rendering YUL useless.

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