Goodbye to Anchorage
Illuminating perspective on geography, geometry, and their contribution to global supply chains
Raymond Brimble, Chairman, Board of Advisors for the Center for Global Business at McCombs
As I look back on my 20+ year business (ad)venture in Anchorage, I am reminded of the meaning of that great city’s name and place in Alaska. I arrived in Alaska for the first time on my birthday, September 24, 1996, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. It snowed a total of 26 inches that afternoon, thus fulfilling my expectations that Anchorage was a place completely smothered in snow and ice 12 months a year. Truth be told, this first snowstorm was also the worst snowstorm I ever saw in all of my travels to Anchorage, and the fact that it arrived so early in the season was also an abnormality.
There is a saying: perceptions are reality. Of course this is not true, and it’s important to untether yourself from the tyranny of how you think things will be, so that you may be open to other realities — perhaps more “real” than those you bring with you.
By 1999, we had built the Alaska CargoPort at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to provide ground facilities, aircraft parking, cargo-transfer and all-weather fueling capabilities for airlines handling the burgeoning trans-Pacific air cargo trade. Our perceptions and assumptions were that Asian carriers, which made up an increasingly prominent part of air cargo traffic through Anchorage, would be our customers. The reality was that the oldest and arguably most historic of all U.S. airlines plying the Pacific skies, Northwest Airlines, would finally choose to make its home at the Alaska CargoPort.
It was a privilege to host Northwest Airlines — and its successor, Delta Airlines — for over 10 years. The Alaska CargoPort went on to become home for other incredible airlines’ air cargo operations as well, including United, Atlas, Polar, DHL, and UPS. We are so proud of the excellent relationship we’ve built with each of these companies and their dedicated personnel, and we hope that our Anchorage facilities have contributed to their global growth and expanding services to their own customers on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
True to its name, Anchorage has provided a place to “anchor” these airlines and their operations, as well as my own career and investments in the aviation facilities business at Lynxs Group. Three factoids about this might challenge your own perceptions:
1). Anchorage is one of the top five busiest airports on the planet.
2). Despite modern aircraft range offering nonstop overflights between Asia and North America, Anchorage has maintained its prominence as a hub for trans-Pacific flights.
3). The airport has never had to shut down due to inclement weather.
Wait a minute! Am I saying that this airport, in a remote part of the world with famously inhospitable weather, is right up there with Chicago O’Hare and Hong Kong in air cargo traffic, and it never gets snowed in? Correct!
Why does Anchorage play such a vital role in global commerce supply lines? The location of Anchorage places it on the most efficient flight path between North America and Asia, called the “Great Circle Route.” Originally explored and mapped Charles Lindbergh, the Great Circle Route takes advantage of the curvature of the earth’s surface: trans-Pacific distances are shorter as you traverse closer to the North Pole.
This is an example of where perceptions come in. Most of us are used to viewing the earth as a flat map. Consequently, straight lines from one point on a map to another point appear shorter than long arching routes drawn north over Alaska, and then back down into Asia. But your perceptions would be incorrect unless you consider the “non-Euclidean” geometry of a sphere, which is exactly what our earth is. Luckily, the original navigators who mapped these routes did not anchor their perceptions in incorrect geometry. They were definitely not “flat-earthers” and understood that the geometry of a sphere would allow them to lay out the shortest and most efficient routes to and from Asia over the polar regions. Global trade has them to thank for saving us lots of time and money — and for helping to create one of the world’s great airports in Anchorage, Alaska.
On to the second factoid: How has Anchorage managed to stay active and relevant even though modern aircraft have the range to overfly it? In the 25 years I have been involved with Anchorage, I have been told countless times that Anchorage might become obsolete once the next generation of aircraft reached a range of 8000+ nautical miles, which would allow them to fly nonstop between all the major airports of Asia and North America. Indeed, passenger aircraft, which once usually made a technical/refueling stop in Anchorage, no longer stop there for the most part. Passengers don’t want to stop, and the aircraft they travel on no longer require it.
But cargo is different. Cargo does not care if the aircraft stops for a couple of hours to refuel and transfer cargo. However, the airlines do care, because a brief and convenient stop in Anchorage allows them to trade a less-than-full fuel load, for a complete cargo load. Cargo wins — because it pays. It also does not hurt that Alaska also has local and competitively priced jet fuel refining to insure that Anchorage always has plentiful fuel. In fact, the Alaska CargoPort was originally conceived partly as a great “truck stop in the sky” for cargo freighters taking advantage of the Great Circle Route, just like you might find large truck stops at major intersections along Interstate highways.
So, it turns out the skeptics were wrong. Anchorage is not only still relevant but also provides a variety of operational and cost advantages over nonstop cargo flights. No wonder cargo flights and operations have continued to grow by leaps and bounds throughout the 25 years the skeptics were telling me that Anchorage was past its prime.
That third factoid, that the Anchorage International Airport never closes because of weather, involves yet another (incorrect) perception that humans cannot overcome and deal with the nature of place. A huge part of the operational design of the airport in Anchorage — and indeed, Alaska itself, all the way back to the daily living of the indigenous people of Alaska — is that the extremes of nature inherent in this locale are planned for, dealt with, even embraced.
At the airport this means a lot of things; such as having plenty of room to store plowed snow for the entire winter because it does not melt; lots of well-maintained snow plowing equipment; world-class de-icing services to ensure aircraft wings are ready for safe flight; and the most up to date expertise regarding all-weather operations. All of these factors and more have led to unmatched capability for extremely rapid cargo transfer and refueling, no matter what the day brings. Imagine an Indy 500 pit stop being performed in a raging snowstorm. They can do that sort of thing at the Anchorage International Airport.
It has all been such an adventure for me. But now, with more than a bit of nostalgia, I am moving on. I have sold my business in Alaska to my good next-door neighbors at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, United Parcel Service (UPS). I could not have hoped for better stewards for the Alaska CargoPort and am certain that UPS will continue to grow the CargoPort, expand jobs, facilitate even more international trade, and be the great corporate citizens they have always been in Alaska and around the world.
But I will still miss it all — especially the many Alaskans I have worked with and come to know as true friends. In this resource-rich part of the world, I can truly say that Alaska’s greatest resource is its people. Thank you for allowing me to get to know you, to share your unique home and sense of place, and to spend a good chunk of my career and my life with you. I hope to see you all again somewhere down the trail, and wish you my very best.
Goodbye to Anchorage, at least for now.