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Airlines boost schedules for another Alaska summer without big cruise ships

Airplanes taxi before takeoff on Thursday, July 30, 2020 at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Fewer ships on the water appears to be leading to more planes in the sky, according to some Alaska tourism industry leaders.

“In general, anyone I’ve talked to, they feel good about what’s happening,” Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said in an interview.

She added that it’s “hard to define optimism right now” in a major Alaska industry that is coming off what was essentially a lost year in many regards but things will almost surely some measure better this summer.

“We are very optimistic over 2020. We know that there is going to be a season. For some folks the phones are ringing and people are booking,” Saupe said.

While nearly all of the million-plus tourists who make their way to Alaska on a cruise ship in a normal summer arrive via the Inside Passage in Southeast, upwards of 400,000 cruise passengers continued on to Southcentral ports in peak years, generating significant business for the Alaska Railroad and Interior Alaska tour companies.

As a result, folks at Visit Anchorage were as distressed as anyone when Canadian Transportation officials announced Feb. 4 they would not be allowing large cruise ships into their ports in 2021, an unexpected move that indirectly killed another summer cruise season in Alaska with few exceptions, according to Saupe.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act, an 1886 federal law requires foreign-built and flagged passenger vessels to make a stop at a foreign port if traveling between two U.S. ports, effectively prohibiting cruise voyages with large vessels between Pacific Northwest and Alaska ports.

Alaska’s congressional delegation introduced legislation in February to temporarily exempt the cruise ships from the 19th Century law but it’s unclear what the prospects are of getting it through Congress.

However, Saupe said the full weight of the cruise ship ban was felt only briefly, as sales staff at the tourism bureau began fielding calls from cruise tour managers looking for alternative Alaska itineraries just hours after the news from Ottawa began to spread. More independent travelers have since been requesting information from Visit Anchorage as well, according to Saupe.

Fairbanks International Airport officials fueled optimism for Interior tour operators and hospitality business owners when they issued a prediction March 23 that the airport is expected to see a roughly 33 percent increase in passenger seat capacity to the Lower 48 over 2019 levels, when visitor activity in the state was near record-high levels. If the prediction holds, the Fairbanks Airport would likely see record numbers of flights and passengers despite the continued pandemic.

United Airlines is again offering seasonal nonstop service between Fairbanks and Chicago, while Delta and Alaska Airlines are adding additional capacity between Fairbanks and Seattle, according to airport officials. Condor Airlines is also resuming summer service to Germany in late May.

The region’s tourism leaders are encouraged by the confidence the airlines are showing in Fairbanks, Explore Fairbanks CEO Deb Hickok said. Explore Fairbanks is also close to releasing an “explore responsibly” marketing campaign for prospective Interior visitors this summer, according to Hickok.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Manager Jim Szczesniak wrote in an email that the summer “looks good” for Anchorage, with seat capacity currently at about 90 percent of 2019, when a record 5.7 million passengers used the airport. More definitive airline capacity figures should be available in a few weeks, according to Szczesniak.

Alaska Airlines will start the summer offering about 80 percent of 2019 capacity on routes between Alaska and the Lower 48-Hawaii but will have the ability to adjust capacity to demand if need be, according to spokesman Tim Thompson. That is in line with network-wide projections Alaska Air executives made over the winter for mid-summer flight activity.

“We are optimistic this will be a good summer to travel to Alaska. With the reduction in large cruise ship capacity, we are looking at ways to promote Alaska as a safe and attractive travel destination,” Thompson wrote via email.

On March 19, Alaska Airlines also announced new nonstop summer service between Anchorage and Minneapolis-St. Paul starting in June.

Saupe noted that some of the cruise lines are also reopening shore side facilities even if guests won’t be getting to Alaska on their ships.

Cruise majors Holland America Line and Princess Cruises announced March 4 they would be opening their lodges across the state and offering land-based Alaska trips that include Alaska Railroad tours this summer. In past years the Alaska Railroad has typically operated tour trains with passenger cars owned by the cruise companies through an arrangement that wasn’t active last year.

Alaska Railroad Corp. spokesman Tim Sullivan said agents are having to reschedule some passengers based on the scaled back summer schedule the railroad released March 11 so it’s difficult to quantify the bookings at this point, but added that early bookings “are definitely stronger than 2020 and we’re really hopeful they’re going to continue to pick up.”

Saupe suggested that Alaska’s highest-in-the-nation COVID-19 vaccination rates also fortuitously garnered a lot of national attention at the same time many travelers were making their summer plans.

“We’ve kind of been saying it’s an opportunity to get longer stays in Anchorage,” she said, adding many cruise passengers that pass through Anchorage in normal years spend just a single night in Alaska’s largest city either before heading home or to attractions elsewhere in the state.

“We have all the different salmon and crab that you need to eat when you’re here,” Saupe quipped of Anchorage.

Visit Anchorage spokesman Jack Bonney additionally noted Alaska is much easier to get to right now than many overseas destinations, which could boost summer visitor totals.

“Alaska is very attractive right now,” Saupe said.