72 Hours With Alaska: Aviation in Anchorage

72 Hours With, Alaska Airlines, Trip Reports

Welcome back. If you recall, I was just getting off my flight in Anchorage, and I had 24 hours there. Let’s pick things up as I walked off the airplane. Meanwhile, I’m still on vacation.

Preview: A Video Preview Of the Milk Run
Part 1: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage
Part 2: Aviation in Anchorage
Part 3: The Northern Part of the Milk Run
Part 4: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes
Part 5: The Southern Part of the Milk Run
Part 6: Going Home and Wrapping Up

[Disclosure: Alaska paid for this trip]

In the rest of the US, Anchorage might feel like a sleepy town. Heck, it’s not even as large as Long Beach where I live. But in Alaska, it is the largest city by far and is a central hub for the state.

I was immediately greeted by Tim Thompson, the head of Public Affairs for Alaska Airlines in the state of Alaska. He was giddy, and for good reason. After making a couple calls, he was able to arrange a tour of the air traffic control tower for us, something he’d never done himself.

We walked across roadways to the gated FAA property. Once through, we headed up to the top, and I was taken aback by the view. Unfortunately I can’t share it with you because photos weren’t allowed, but I’ll show this map and then do my best to describe it without boring you to death. The red dot is the tower.

To the south was the passenger terminal and a bit to the west was a ramp full of cargo 747s. It brought a tear to the eye. Immediately to the north/northeast I saw Lake Hood, a remarkably busy seaplane base (that also has a gravel strip). In the winter, the lake ices over and people use skis to fly in and out. The Anchorage tower controls traffic on the water, the gravel, and the pavement at both airports. It’s a very strange arrangement that seems to work quite well. In the distance, we could see airplanes buzzing all over, including some heavy metal coming out of J-BER (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson). After coming down, we drove through the Lake Hood complex.

People wait years and years to get a spot for their aircraft on this lake. On the other side, Tim took me to airline dork heaven. There’s a bluff at the end of runway 33, and 747s were screaming over our heads one after the other. I could have stayed there for days.

After a brief stop at Alaska’s regional office, we drove into town. Just east of town lies Merrill Field, a busy general aviation airport. It’s not hard to see that aviation is hugely important in Anchorage, as it is in the entire state.

Consider this. Of the 19 airports Alaska flies to in the state of Alaska, a mere 3 are connected to the road system. That’s Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay, if you’re keeping track. Without aviation, some of the rest would need to use slow, uncomfortable, and sometimes unreliable ferries to reach the outside world. Others wouldn’t even be lucky enough to have that option. It’s just unthinkable how isolated these places truly are.

Tim dropped me off at my hotel, the quirky and enormous Captain Cook. It has a spectacular vantage point with views from downtown looking all over the Cook Inlet on to The Sleeping Lady (technically Mount Susitna) and on a good day, Denali. It’s still family run and despite its three massive towers, still feels like something special and not part of a large, characterless chain.

After finding dinner on my own, I met with Alaska SVP of External Relations (and tour guide) Joe Sprague for a beer, and we talked about what lay ahead for the next couple of days. He may live in Seattle now, but Joe’s ties to Alaska are strong. His parents lived in Juneau when he was younger. He learned to fly floatplanes there with Wings of Alaska back in the 1980s. Then he worked for Era (now Ravn) before making the move to join Alaska Airlines.

Throughout his career, he told me that he had always found ways to make sure he could keep coming up to the state of Alaska regularly. But Joe has now announced that in September he’ll be leaving to join the Washington State Catholic Conference, a cause that’s near and dear to him and one of the only reasons he could ever have considered leaving Alaska. Unless he can, as I suggested, engineer an acquisition of the Catholic Conference in Alaska, his ability to visit the state regularly for work may finally be ending. I could feel the wistfulness in the air as he pondered the thought.

I returned to my room that night and watched as the sun continued to slowly dip toward the horizon. I found that Alaskans take their summer solstice very seriously. Everywhere I went, I heard people pointing out that we had 19 hours and 19 minutes of light that day. It didn’t really sink in, however, until I found myself watching late night television while shielding it from the glare of the sun.

I closed the shades and drifted into a deep sleep.

The next morning, I met Joe and Marilyn Romano for breakfast. Marilyn is the Regional Vice President for the State of Alaska for the airline and as such, she’s an important figure in the community. Her accent quickly reveals her true origins down in Texas, but she’s been in Alaska for many, many years and proudly calls it home.

After breakfast, we went over to the cargo facility and met with Jeff Olver, the GM of Cargo Operations in Anchorage.

As you can imagine, cargo is hugely important to the airline, but it’s about to grow even greater in stature. Today, Alaska has one dedicated 737-400 freighter along with 4 Combi aircraft. (The fifth Combi was just retired a month ago.) Very soon, if it hasn’t happened already, Alaska will take delivery of its first 737-700 freighter. It has 2 more coming after that. Once the 737-400s all go away in October, this freighter fleet along with the bellies of passenger aircraft will mean a lot more capacity in the state.

Jeff told me that on an average day they handle about 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of cargo. The busiest day he’s seen was around 375,000 pounds.

Walking into the cargo facility, it becomes immediately clear just how different things are in the state. There were water heaters going to Nome, an outboard motor for a boat going somewhere, and eggs going to Cordova (on our flight).

Oh yes, we had some pizza boxes heading our way as well.

And of course, there was plenty of fish.

All of these would be packed up into “igloos,” four of which would fill the front cabin on our flight on the Combi. Many more fit on a full 737 freighter.

I asked Jeff about some of the crazier things he had shipped. He told me about one odd shipment immediately after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They were racing to contain the oil, so Alaska was asked to ship a containment boom. This was a series of 5 gallon drums strewn together with chain link. It stretched 300 feet long. On the old 737-200 Combi, they had to use the entire aircraft, going back and forth and back and forth until they were able to just barely squeeze the whole thing in.

Alaska, along with three other local airlines, operates in a program called bypass mail out into the Arctic. For essential goods, shippers can send US mail without going to a post office. Instead they drop things off on palettes at the cargo facility and those get shipped out for cheap.

The federal government subsidizes it (at tremendous cost) to ensure that people in these remote regions can get what they truly need without paying an arm and a leg. It’s a somewhat controversial program, but it’s big business for Alaska Airlines.

We stepped outside into brilliant sunshine, just how brilliant was mentioned by every person I met. (It was a rough spring, apparently.) In front of us was a single hardstand where they loaded the freighter.

They’re still trying to figure out how they’re going to handle parking for the three freighters that are coming online. (Combis are loaded at the gate, something that they are undoubtedly happy to see going away.)

To the left was a boring, modern-looking hangar.

But that’s just a facade. The ancient hangar can just barely hold two 737s, and it needs to be replaced. Work has already begun on a new $40 million state-of-the-art facility down the road. While the current facility looks modern on the outside, the inside tells a different story. There is a stunning (and I mean STUNNING), original wood frame that shows the true roots of the building before Alaska modernized it.

After the cargo facility, we made our way back into town for Joe’s speech to the Visit Alaska monthly meeting. That was the main reason he was in Anchorage, and I was quick to note the emphasis he put on the $100 million in improvements the airline is pouring into the state. I wondered aloud if Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America and focus on growing California had left Alaskans feeling neglected. The airline was really pushing this project (the new hangar, renovations on the 11 owned facilities, and the freighter expansion) to help calm the nerves of Alaskans. The state would not be forgotten even though priorities have clearly shifted.

We zipped back to the airport after the meeting, and the real adventure began. After passing through security, we walked all the way down to gate C8, a jet bridge-less gate from where the Combis fly. Our ship, N764AS, was waiting for us.

In the next post, we’ll get back in the air.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

13 comments on “72 Hours With Alaska: Aviation in Anchorage

  1. Just think how much the pizza cost if they have to fly in boxes to hold it.

    Can’t believe the Captain Cook hotel is still there and called the Captain Cook.

    The warmest pullover sweater I ever bought was in Anchorage at Nordstroms….LOL

    1. I recall a TV show years back (maybe “Flying Wild Alaska”, or whichever show followed the Era family around, IIRC) where a pizza was made, transported via snowmobile to the airstrip, and then flown in by plane. I believe it was a $30+ pizza, and the pizza shop owner complained about how expensive and spoiled the produce she got was, given how far it had to travel to her.

      1. That was a fantastic show. Jim Tweto was the main character, and his wife ran the airport facility (can’t recall the city). I think it was one of the best reality shows ever – showed much of the family, logistics, and even delved into the social issues of living in such a remote place. And while I’m sure they edited / added some tense moments for excitement (like the perky daughter getting her pilot’s license, I never saw it as over the top dramatic or inaccurate.

        1. Agreed. Correct or not, it came across as a rather authentic, sympathetic portrayal of the Tweto family. While the producers squeezed hard at getting drama from Alaska weather, bush flying, etc (if a cameraman on the ground is filming Jim Tweto as he comes in to land on a gravel bar in the bush, that means that at least one plane or helicopter already made it down there safely, so it’s probably not THAT bad), they didn’t seem to engage in much misleading editing or unnecessary drama around the family.

          The fact that the Tweto daughters were very attractive certainly didn’t hurt either.

  2. Next time you are in town, check out our aviation museum. It’s not Boeing or Evergreen, but it is spectacular with the Alaskan memorabilia, and the hanger full of restored small aircraft is worth a day in itself.

  3. Interesting that the 737 combi has the cargo up front. I’ve flew the 747 combi before and the cargo area was in the back. Does passenger use the jet way to board? or they board from the back using stairs?

  4. The Deck at Lake Hood (the Millenium Hotel’s restaurant) is a great place to watch float planes come and go. We spent a few days in Anchorage after our Aug. 2013 Vancouver to Anchorage cruise. We caught up with an old friend who showed us around. She recommended the hotel and the restaurant as a good place to stay and unwind.

  5. I know this is an old article, but FWIW, its not the federal government subsidizing Alaska Bypass mail, its the post office, which nominally has its own balance sheet and revenues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier