It has been a frustrating, and sometimes restless, early summer for residents east of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. With the airport's main north-south runway closed for renovation, traffic has been redirected to its east-west runway instead, meaning that planes are taking off east over the city, flying east over Midtown and the Hillside before veering off to their respective flight paths. Very quickly, Anchorage residents have become acquainted, sometimes to their dismay, with the volume of air traffic coming into and out of Alaska's largest city.
This year's traffic rerouting is relatively brief, a few weeks in early summer. But next year, the north-south runway will be closed all summer long, meaning that the headaches for residents who are already fed up with plane noise will be considerably more pronounced.
When in its usual configuration, it's easy to forget that our airport is so busy. Partly, that's because most of us think of passenger traffic as the main driver for airports, but for Anchorage, that's by no means true. Believe it or not, Anchorage has one of the top five airports in the world in total cargo throughput, and is No. 2 in the Western Hemisphere for landed weight of cargo aircraft. That's a lot of weight, and it helps drive home why periodic runway renovation is necessary, in much the same way as resurfacing the Glenn Highway is not an optional proposition after enough vehicles drive over it.
A big piece of the reason the airport is such an important cargo hub is Alaska's position from a global perspective, famously observed by Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell in 1935. "I believe that in the future," Mitchell testified to Congress, "whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world."
Gen. Mitchell was right. Fast-forward to 2018, and Alaska is less than 10 hours by air from 90 percent of the industrialized world. Our state is even closer than that to political and commercial hot spots around the Pacific rim, making Alaska a significant location for both consumer goods and military force projection. It's why Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson has F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters and Eielson Air Force Base in the Interior is getting F-35 Joint Strike fighters. It's also why quite a few Boeing 747 cargo planes per hour have been flying out over the city during the past few weeks.
There's no question that the increased plane noise can be an issue for residents. Especially at night, low-flying planes can wake light sleepers or cause sensitive dogs to bark. Studies have shown a correlation between increased noise in cities and negative health effects such as high blood pressure, stress and heart trouble. When and where it's possible, efforts should be taken by all involved — officials, pilots, residents — to make our city a quieter place.
For the most part, however, that air traffic is not only unavoidable but tremendously beneficial to the city. According to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., one in 10 jobs in Anchorage — 9,000 direct and about 6,500 indirect — are attributable to the airport. Seventy-one percent of all Asia-bound air cargo from the U.S. and 82 percent of all U.S.-bound air cargo from Asia transits through Anchorage. The airport contributes $2.3 million in taxes per year to the municipality.
As Alaska looks to diversify its economy and move beyond a revenue picture dominated by a single commodity, the airport offers an example of a bright spot in that effort — and assists in the development of others, such as tourism. That doesn't mean the plane noise over the city this summer and in 2019 isn't disruptive, but it does mean it's vital to the functioning of a healthy Alaska. The sound of planes overhead is the sound of a robust economy. But it's all right to put earplugs in if you don't want it to disrupt your sleep.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.