Anchorage Airport's Job Growth Soars

Sep. 18--Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is one of the area's most dynamic employment centers, where job growth has far outpaced the city's broader economy over the past nine years, a recent study shows.

And a wave of public and private projects happening at the airport signals a vibrant future.

The 4,800-acre airport, positioned on the western edge of town, abutting Knik Arm, is home to a large assortment of businesses ranging from international air-cargo carriers and airlines to restaurants and retailers.

Together, they employ some 9,800 people with an annual payroll of $453 million, according to a recent study by University of Alaska Anchorage economists.

That compares with the 6,650 jobs with a $244 million payroll that economists estimated when they first measured the airport's economic impact in 1996.

The 47 percent growth in the number of jobs at the airport compares with a 19 percent increase in the number of jobs created in Anchorage's economy as a whole during those eight years, according to figures compiled by the state Labor Department.

Anchorage's increasing role as an international air-cargo hub accounts for most of the airport's recent growth, said Scott Goldsmith of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA.

A vibrant tourist industry and an ever-increasing number of Alaska residents and businesses traveling and shipping goods through the airport also have kept things energized, Goldsmith said.

"All of those are growth areas," he said.

The institute's latest jobs estimate is a partial update of its original study. It has not prepared a full report detailing where the jobs are or more thoroughly measuring the airport's current economic impact, Goldsmith said.

But clearly the air cargo industry's role has become far more significant and has been the focus of much of the airport's development.

"The Asia-North American route is probably the hottest of any cargo route," said Mort Plumb, director of the state-owned airport. "We happen to be on that route, and that's why it's increasing."

The airport also has encouraged more international cargo shipments by keeping landing fees and ground leases low for airlines, and by lobbying for new rules that allow U.S. and foreign airlines to more freely transfer cargo with one another at Alaska airports, Plumb said.

A U.S.-China aviation agreement signed last summer that phases in additional passenger and cargo traffic each year through 2010 also is expected to keep Anchorage's air-cargo businesses busy.

The agreement allows 195 new flights for the carriers of each country, 111 by cargo carriers and 84 by passenger airlines.

That extra volume is prompting FedEx to add staff in Anchorage, which it uses as its main sorting center for cargo heading to and from Asia, said Mike Higley, the company's managing director of Alaska operations.

FedEx is adding roughly 40 people, most of them part time, to its current staff of about 700 who work at the airport, to handle the extra China cargo, Higley said.

"We are here to support Asia and the more flights coming in from Asia, the more folks we need to support that flight activity," he said.

Anchorage also will be one of the first U.S. airports to host the massive new Airbus A380 "superjumbo" jet, and both FedEx and its rival, UPS, are preparing their Anchorage sites to accommodate it.

The A380 has a 262-foot wingspan, measures 239 feet from nose to tail and can take off weighing as much as 592 tons. The largest cargo plane that normally uses the Anchorage airport is the Boeing 747-400. Its wingspan is 211 feet, and its maximum takeoff weight is 455 tons.

The new planes are expected to start landing in Anchorage in 2008.

For its part, the airport is widening some runways and taxiways to make room for the A380s, paying for the improvements in part with $51.3 million in federal funding, Plumb said.

Over the next four years, the airport plans to spend more than $436 million on improvements, including $143 million remodeling the A and B concourses in the main terminal, Plumb said.

Separately, a private developer plans to build a four-story garage for eight rental-car companies. Construction on the $57 million project, which is to be paid for with additional rental-car customer fees, is scheduled to start next spring and the facility is to be open by spring 2007.

The robust growth at Anchorage's airport has a spillover effect on the city, as the rising number of jobs and ever-increasing levels of activity create even more jobs in the surrounding community, ISER's Goldsmith said.

Those jobs are created in places such as the grocery and department stores where airport employees shop, and hotels and restaurants where flight crews laying over in Anchorage stay and eat, Goldsmith said.

ISER estimates that the airport supports some 7,000 jobs outside the airport, compared with 4,300 in 1996.

Neal Fried, a state labor economist, noted that while the employment figures are impressive, the airport's economic importance to Anchorage and the state as a whole goes far beyond the jobs count.

"It's a basic piece of our economic infrastructure," Fried said. "Without it, you wouldn't have a lot of other economic activity. It allows for a huge chunk of our commerce to take place."

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