During the Cold War, Anchorage Airport—today known as Ted Stevens International Airport—earned the nickname “Crossroads of the World”. The Alaskan airport was a bustling, cosmopolitan place, despite Anchorage itself being a city of less than a quarter-million and built on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. The reason why Alaska was such an essential flight route in this period involves a combination of political factors, technological limits, and geography.
Anchorage Airport has historically been a cargo hub—its location at the top of the globe makes it equidistant between New York and Tokyo, and less than ten hours by air to 95% of major global markets. The airport was opened in 1953, the beginning of the Cold War, and by 1957, it became a popular stopover point for European and US East Coast passengers flying to Asia. This was because Western European and American flights were restricted from entering Soviet airspace, which would have been the more direct route. Due to technological limits at the time, flights would have to stop to refuel in Alaska before heading to their destination in Asia.
Alaska continued to be the “Crossroads of the World” for several decades, with increasing international passenger traffic, until Soviet airspace opened to the world in 1989. This allowed for more direct routes from Europe to Asia, and lessened the need for the Alaska stopover. Additionally, the increased fuel capacity of commercial jets meant there was no longer a need for a refueling stop.
But this was not the end of Anchorage Airport’s importance—instead, as China and other Asian economies grew in importance, Anchorage found new life as a cargo hub for transporting goods between Asia and the United States. In fact, today, Anchorage is the fourth-largest cargo airport in the world. In 2015, Anchorage Airport’s manager, John Parrott, reported that roughly 80% of all air cargo traffic between Asia and North America passed through Anchorage. This is helped by the fact Anchorage is one of the few airports in the world where foreign cargo can be transferred without being subject to customs and other trade regulations, thanks to an exemption from the US Department of Transportation.
The importance of Anchorage’s Airport to global cargo transfer has been a boon for the local economy as well. It is estimated that one in ten jobs in the Anchorage area are a result of the airport’s business activity. For context, almost 19,000 jobs in Alaska are supported by state exports to the Indo-Pacific.
The importance of Anchorage’s cargo operations are only set to grow in the coming years. Increased e-commerce activity from Americans and the critical transfer of medical supplies from Asia
spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for cargo transfers from Asia. Additionally, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent closing of its airspace, Anchorage may find itself once again as the “Crossroads of the World” for passenger flights. Whatever the future holds, Anchorage remains a deep, critical link between the United States and Asia.
Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.