April 29, 2011 is the date of the last nonstop flight from Anchorage to Taipei aboard China Airlines.
China Airlines is the last airline to offer regularly-scheduled service between Anchorage and Asia. That means Alaskans who want to travel to Japan, China, the Philippines or other points across the Pacific will have to connect via Seattle or Los Angeles.
It's not that everybody wasn't trying to make the China Airlines service work. Certainly the folks at the airport wanted to keep the service. And the advantage to frequent travelers to Asia is obvious. In fact, just last year, the State of Alaska offered $1 million to China Airlines to boost their flights from two to three each week. I guess you could say the state was promoting its own version of "essential air service" -- with an international twist.
Looking at the availability of seats to Taipei, though, revealed that very few seats were up for grabs from Anchorage. The popular flights usually were fully booked from New York, where the plane started its journey. And there was little incentive to save seats for Anchorage passengers, since China Air could make up to three or four times as much money selling a seat from New York to Taipei.
The state's interest was directed more at keeping the concessions open in the North Terminal, where the charters and international flights operate (U.S. Customs is located on the ground floor by baggage claim).
As it played out, China Airlines only operated about 36 of the promised 52 extra flights, according to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport director John Parrott. So China Airlines did not fulfill the terms of the agreement.
Also, there is a bigger disincentive to international airlines making a gas stop in Anchorage. It's called the TSA (surprise!).
According to Parrott, the TSA is trying to get China Airlines to pay around $2.5 million in fees. For domestic and international passengers who originate in Anchorage or who change planes here, there is a mandated fee. But China's passengers were herded off the plane to a secure area while it gassed up. Then they got back on the plane and continued to Taipei or New York.
China Airlines, of course, is contesting the charge. The airport has written a letter of support for their position, according to Parrott.
So the combination of better long-range aircraft, a hostile regulatory environment and a relatively small base of prospective travelers has made a perfect storm to wipe out the convenient nonstop flights from Anchorage to Asia.
That doesn't mean Asians are not traveling to Alaska! In fact, Japan Airlines is operating a bunch of charter flights to both Anchorage and Fairbanks this summer. But the flights are coordinated with a group of tour operators. Alaskans cannot buy seats on the 767s.
So the only two international airlines left are providing nonstop service to Europe. Condor Airlines, which has operated for 10 years between Alaska and Frankfurt, continues its seasonal nonstop flights, beginning May 7, 2011. Also, Edelweiss Airlines will offer once-a-week nonstop service between Anchorage and Zurich. The flights will stop in Whitehorse on the way back from Zurich. Those flights start on May 30, 2011.
Oh, and the airport is talking to other airlines that might fill the hole that China Airlines left. As it stands now, the Condor flights will depart from the South Terminal (they have a deal with Alaska Airlines). The arriving flights from Frankfurt still will stop at the North Terminal to clear customs -- but it's doubtful the Duty Free shop will keep paying rent when there aren't any flights stopping in to gas up.
Officials concede that the local market is not big enough to justify a regularly-scheduled flight from Asia to Anchorage. And again, it's a logistical and regulatory rat's nest to reintroduce the technical stop with local boarding rights so folks can get off or board in Anchorage.
And that is bad news. But it underscores that much of Alaska's long-haul service originally touched down here as a result of geography. It was only later that folks fell in love with the area. And that was before the TSA.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com.