During the Cold War, a remote Alaskan airport became a major international hub. now it’s back

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seen on the map Anchorage It looks like a lost town in Alaska, located on the west coast of the United States. Although it is the most populous city in the state, it does not reach 300,000 inhabitants and in winter it is easy for the thermometer to drop below 10 ºC during the day. Despite this and its remote location, for much of the second half of the 20th century its airport, now known as Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, played a fundamental role worldwide, with intense passenger traffic between Asia, Europe and the US. In the 1990s it lost that rank; but now, in the 21st century, it seems about to recover it. And all thanks to the war in Ukraine.

Why? Well, for the same reason it was so important in the ’70s and ’80s: because it offers an ideal loophole for planes that want to avoid russian airspace. In the 20th century, the skies of Moscow and the rest of the federation were banned by the USSR authorities; today, by Vladimir Putin, involved in the war in Ukraine and confronted with Western authorities.

At the right time and place

The Anchorage airport opened in 1953 and in a very short time began to attract commercial traffic between Europe and Asia. In the 1960s, after Canada became the 49th state of the United States, it had strengthened its strategic weight so much that it became the “air crossroads of the world” and it was a regular stopover for seven major airlines connecting Europe, Asia and the eastern United States. The private jet business grew, its runways were expanded, a new terminal was opened… Why? partly because of the north slope oil business and the trans-Alaska pipeline; but also, and to a great extent, due to its geographical location and the international context.

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As the Government of Alaska itself points outAnchorage is nine and a half hours from 90% of the industrial world and in a strategic location for planes that must fly between metropolises such as Los Angeles, New York or London and Tokyo or Hong Kong. For aircraft with a shorter range than those we drive today, that advantage was crucial. In the second half of the 20th century there was also another fundamental factor as a backdrop: the Cold War, which led many airlines to avoid the airspace of the USSR on their flights between Asia and Europe.

That golden age did not last long. In 1989 the USSR unblocked its airspace and the airlines redrew the map of international routes. The change did not mark the end of the Anchorage airport, which saw air cargo operators increase their bases and local traffic grew; but it did deal a severe setback to the flow of long-haul passengers. The global context influenced, but also that the planes themselves began to offer greater autonomy and needed fewer stops to refuel. In 1994, after suffering a puncture in demand, Anchorage bottomed out.

anchorage moves approximately five million passengers a year —in 2021, still hungover from the pandemic, recorded 4.5 million— and logs an important upload activity, which actually made it one of the most important in the entire United States in this type of traffic during the health crisis. Now I could recover too its weight internationally.

The war that Russia and Ukraine fight over the mud and asphalt has its effect on the skies. At the end of February the Kremlin decided to close its airspace to flights operated by airlines from 36 countries, including all those that make up the EU and Canada. The measure was adopted after those same states veto in turn the operations of companies and vessels registered in Russia. In the past week The US joined that scenario and also prohibited the aircraft of the federation.

Radar

Today a simple look at flight radar allows us to see how there is a huge vacuum of operations on Ukraine and Russia. How does that affect Anchorage? Well, for now, it has once again given international visibility to its terminal. Even before the war broke out Reuters published how the Cold War perspective was being “resurrected” that European planes bound for Asia would have to make a technical stop in Alaska. Those responsible for the terminal assured Alaska News Source last week that no airline had contacted them, but officials do acknowledge that the companies have sounded out ground handlers.

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As detailed by Alaska News, airlines have been interested in the feasibility of making stopovers on their runways. “We are looking into meeting with our tenants, including ground handlers and suppliers of fuel and de-icing chemicals, to make sure that in the event of additional flights, it can be done.” face the situation”, explained the commercial director of Ted Stevens Anchorage, Trudy Wassel: “Conversations are taking place; but nothing has been confirmed at the moment”.

Like the fear of a nuclear catastrophe or the specter of war in Europe, the conflict in Ukraine could bring back another memory of the Cold War: Anchorage’s past splendor.

Cover image | Joseph (Flickr)

seen on the map Anchorage It looks like a lost town in Alaska, located on the west coast of the…

seen on the map Anchorage It looks like a lost town in Alaska, located on the west coast of the…

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