A city of Kenai worker clears snow from a runway at Kenai Municipal Airport Wednesday afternoon. For one week in March, the facility will be an international airport.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Usually, a visit to the Kenai Municipal Airport is a stop on the way to Anchorage. No big airport-style security stands in the way of a friendly flight on a small Dash-8 aircraft to busy Ted Stevens International.
The Arctic Winter Games will change all that, if only for a few days and only for visiting competitors.
“We’ll have customs and we’ll be accepting international arrivals, so I guess we’ll be an international airport for a couple days,” said Airport Manager Rebecca Cronkhite.
In order to convert the airport’s operations center into a processing center for international flights, the maintenance equipment stored there will move, AWG officials will set up a welcome center, and officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Anchorage and Transportation Security Administration officers will set up an arrivals area.
Equipment will be moved from the 4-year-old center to the Kenai Public Works Department’s storage area off Airport Way a week before the arrivals start. This will give AWG staffers and volunteers time to gussy up the facility for welcoming guests.
“It’s pretty nice because it’s all brand new practically,” Cronkhite said. “They’ll make it look more like a gymnasium than a shop.”
Later in the week, CBP officers will arrive from Anchorage to set up their equipment, which includes computers with high-speed Internet connections and an area for fingerprinting and photographing international non-immigrant visitors. This includes AWG athletes, but the process is less time-consuming than it sounds.
According to CBP Supervising Officer Chris Kennally, his officers can process up to 500 passengers an hour.
“It literally takes just seconds,” Kennally said. “We’re looking at these flights as low-risk.”
Athletes will spend more time at AWG registration than customs, he said.
“We could do 500 an hour, but they can’t process 500 people an hour,” Kennally said. “If two or three aircraft land at one time, they’ve got a problem.”
For that reason, AWG officials are working with the airport and the airlines chartering flights for Team Greenland, Team Alberta and others to stagger arrival times.
“They won’t be back to back,” Cronkhite said.
As far as security is concerned, officers in the area should be able to handle the passenger load. There may be a need for additional help from Anchorage, but Penelope Otto, TSA’s Customer Support Manager said at this point,
“Really, there aren’t additional responsibilities for TSA.”
After Team Alaska arrives at the center by bus on the evening of Friday, March 3, the first flight should land around midnight. The center will be buzzing with arrivals from then until Sunday afternoon.
After customs and security comes AWG registration. There, the athletes will sign in, get their picture ID and pick up a backpack with sleeping bags, schedules, maps, AWG memorabilia and other donated goodies for the week ahead.
Then, if they like, they can write a postcard home and send it off from a Post Office desk while they wait for their teammates.
“It’s really a welcome center for the kids,” said Tim Dillon, AWG general manger.
According to Cronkhite, the airport has been in contact with U.S. Customs and TSA officials in Anchorage discussing security requirements for nearly two years.
“Without their support, we wouldn’t be able to do it because we don’t normally process that size of aircraft,” she said.
Processing a Boeing 737 full of international passengers may take help from afar, but landing a 737 in Kenai is not a problem, she said. The “little” municipal airport is listed as a diversion airport for Alaska, Delta, Northwest and United Airlines 737 flights, and it handles cargo flights during fishing season. U.S. military personnel use the airport for training exercises because its runways and taxiways are large enough and the airspace above is less crowded.
“A lot of people just don’t realize it,” Cronkhite said of the airport’s capabilities. “For most people flying in and out of Kenai, they only see the Dash-8, so they assume that’s the size of our airport, but it was designed for 737s.”
As far as departing flights go, Dillon said, TSA officers will be at the facility, but customs will be handled when the athletes get home.
“It just makes it more efficient,” Cronkhite explained, adding, “By then, the week’s over, they’re tired and they probably won’t want to have to stay an extra night.”
One customs officer may still be here, though. He doesn’t know which events he’ll attend, but Kennally plans to stay on the peninsula for at least a few AWG events.
“Oh, I’ll stick around” he said. “I’ve never seen it before.”
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