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Alaska Airlines begins $60M effort to boost cargo capacity, upgrade terminals and other facilities across the state

Sunni Bean

Alaska Airlines has launched a $60 million plan to improve terminals and other facilities where it operates around Alaska over the next few years, representatives of the company said on May 16. The airline is also expanding its cargo presence in the state, they said.

The projects include upgrades and potential expansions at some of the 13 terminals owned by the airline, in some cases for the first time in decades, Marilyn Romano, the airline’s vice president of the Alaska region, said in an interview.

“We’ll be taking a hard look at each one,” Romano said.

The terminals over the years became congested at airports in towns such as Bethel, Kodiak, Nome, and Utqiagvik, as larger jets began hauling more passengers and as post-9/11 security measures took up more space, they said.

Passengers per flight also increased to rural areas after the airline in 2017 eliminated the unique “combi” planes. The “mullet of airplanes,” as the airline called the Boeing 737-400 jets, were part cargo and part passenger plane. They carried far fewer passengers than today’s jets carry.

“It’s all being designed around how to make this a better experience for people in these communities,” Romano said.

The airline will also make improvements at terminals it does not own, such as to employee working areas in Fairbanks International Airport.

The plan is a follow-on to the airline’s upgrades in Alaska that began around 2016, which included light remodels at some terminals, Romano said. In 2018, also as part of that earlier effort, the airline spent $50 million to construct its maintenance and engineering facility and hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The airline’s spending for the current plan would come atop those costs.

That work stalled when the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic disrupted travel, shipping, and construction, among other problems, Romano said. The effort is still being called the Great Land Investment Plan, the airline said.

The list of projects should be completed in 2027, said Romano.

Some work might not be noticed by travelers, such as a required ramp replacement in Utqiagvik that began last year, Romano said. Some of it will be very obvious, according to Romano. Design studies are underway to determine the best way to upgrade terminals in Kodiak and Bethel. The work would be designed to meet terminal needs over the next decade or so.

In Kodiak, the airline has already leased space where it could potentially move its cargo operations. That could allow the airline to expand its passenger terminal there, said Romano. Work there could begin this year and continue through 2027. In Bethel, the airline is looking to upgrade the terminal. That work could begin this year and extend through 2026.

The airline is the only major domestic carrier in the United States that owns and maintains its own terminals, Romano said. Those are all in Alaska, where the Seattle-headquartered company got its start nearly a century ago.

Cargo expansion, lounge makeover

More construction work under the plan begins in Anchorage next week.

The airline will roughly double the space and spruce up the decor at the Alaska Airlines lounge at the Ted Stevens airport. The project will expand the lounge’s seating to 135 guests from 65. It will update the furniture and flooring, and will add work by Alaska artists.

That project is expected to last at least two months, said Tim Thompson, a spokesman with the airline. It won’t affect the current lounge schedule, except for a closure that will last three or four days as the opening date approaches.

Much of the work will take place on the other side of a wall that will later be removed, so it will not disrupt activities in the existing lounge, Thompson said.

The airline has also started expanding its cargo efforts in Alaska.

Most of Alaska Air Cargo’s work happens in the state, though the airline’s cargo expansion includes new runs between Anchorage and Seattle, and Seattle and Los Angeles, Thompson said.

The cargo operations in Juneau International Airport will also be expanded, Romano said.

The Juneau airport is essentially a cargo hub for several Southeast Alaska communities, and the airline’s cargo facility there is aging, Thompson said.

“They just need more room, and they actually just need a better facility there,” said Thompson.

The idea is to speed up cargo shipping in Juneau and elsewhere in Southeast, Romano said. The plan will also add capability to move more cargo in those areas.

“It’s not something the guests will see, but it will be very important to the people of the community,” Romano said.

As part of the cargo improvements, the company is adding two 737-800 freighter aircraft, converted from passenger aircraft, said Thompson. That will boost its cargo fleet to five jets, from the current set of three smaller 737-700 jets.

The first of the converted freighter jets began flying on May 16, Thompson said. The second should be operating by the end of June. The new jets will be be employed around the state.

“That will basically double the capacity of what Alaska Air Cargo is able to do here in the state of Alaska,” Thompson said.

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments.
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