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Vol. 17, No. 36 Week of September 02, 2012
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2012: Alaska Air makes new cargo connections

Air freight carrier expands nationwide network, prepares to upgrade and enhance service as Washington-Alaska shipping volumes soar

By Rose Ragsdale

Alaska-Washington Connection

Alaska Air Cargo, which operates the most extensive air cargo operation of any passenger airline on the U.S. West Coast, reports new growth and upgrades aimed at better serving its customers, especially freight forwarders and business shippers in the Alaska-Washington trade.

The operation is a division of Alaska Airlines, which traces its roots back 80 years to 1932, when Linious “Mac” McGee of McGee Airways started flying his three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay. A merger with Star Air Service in 1934 created the largest airline in Alaska, which eventually became Alaska Airlines.

Today, the combined team of Alaska Air Group Cargo Services covers more than 85 cities from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Barrow, Alaska, and between Boston and the Hawaii Islands and beyond.

Alaska Air Cargo, itself, transports more than 120 million pounds of cargo annually, including seafood, mail and freight. Much of Alaska Airlines’ cargo operation supports moving goods between the state of Alaska and the Lower 48 states.

Southbound, much of the product is fresh Alaska seafood. The airline transports more than 25 million pounds of fresh Alaska seafood each year from fishing towns throughout Alaska to markets and restaurants across the country.

Northbound, the airline transports a range of products, including U.S. Postal Service mail, essential supplies for remote Alaska communities and personal packages. Alaska Airlines operates both all-cargo and combi (part cargo/part passenger) aircraft on these routes.

During the first half of 2012, shipping volumes on Alaska-Washington routes increased significantly.

“It’s shaping up to be a very good year for Alaska Air Cargo,” Managing Director Torque Zubeck said in late June.

“So far, volumes between Seattle and Alaska have been good. Salmon shipments are up in Alaska, and it looks like Shell Oil is going to be drilling in the Chukchi Sea. A lot of activity is associated with that, and we’ve already seen volumes picking up. That’s a positive sign,” said Zubeck in an interview.

Alaska Air Cargo is also experiencing higher shipping volumes to the North Slope reflecting increased activity in the region’s oilfields. “We’re seeing lots of cargo moving through our warehouse to the North Slope, and we’ve even had inquiries about our charter freight services,” Zubeck reported.

System-wide growth

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines is continuing to add new destinations to its regularly scheduled routes across the United States and thereby opening up new opportunities for air cargo customers.

“Just this year, we added new service from Seattle to Kansas City in March and to Philadelphia in June, and in September, we will begin new flights to San Antonio,” Zubeck said. Alaska also rerouted its Seattle-Miami flights to Fort Lauderdale, a nearby destination with an airport that should provide passengers and cargo customer in south Florida with more efficient transit times.

“We’ve also been growing our Hawaii franchise,” Zubeck said. Unlike many other airlines that offer service from primarily Los Angeles to Honolulu with connections to the other islands, “we have flights to all four islands out of Seattle.”

“Our freight forwarders and other cargo customers like that,” he said.

Alaska Airlines also recently added weekly seasonal flights, beginning in November, directly from Anchorage to Kona, the Big Island, to its regular Seattle-Honolulu service, along with other seasonal flights to Maui, including a weekly flight from Bellingham, Wash.

“We serve the smaller markets for people who need to ship high-priority items. For what folks need, it seems to be working,” he observed.

Upgrades and improvements

As part of its commitment to serving Alaskans’ cargo and passenger needs, the airline has invested $100 million to modernize and increase the capacity of its cargo fleet. Alaska Air Cargo retrofitted six Boeing 737-400 cargo aircraft to its fleet. These aircraft, one freighter and five combis, replaced the carrier’s previous 737-200 cargo fleet.

Alaska Air Cargo recently installed a new ULD system in Anchorage, bringing to three the number of systems it uses to load and unload cargo at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. A “ULD,” also called an “Igloo,” is a standardized aircraft container that can hold up to 6,000 pounds of cargo.

“The third ULD system increased our capacity to efficiently move cargo on and off of our aircraft,” Zubeck said.

The airline is now planning to remodel and enhance its cargo-handling system in Seattle by merging separate customer service counters for outbound and inbound cargo into one with a single lobby.

“We believe it will be more efficient for our customers to have a single pickup and drop-off location,” explained Zubeck.

Alaska Airlines also plans to re-evaluate its aircraft needs during the next six months. Currently, the airline operates 117 aircraft, of which about 20 percent, or some 23-24 airplanes, serve Alaska destinations.

“Hopefully by the middle of next year, we will introduce the 737-900ER, a larger aircraft that can carry 181 passengers and has more cargo space,” Zubeck said.

The range of the larger airplane is well-suited for transcontinental flights and Hawaii flights, he added.

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