Russian airport poses threat to Fairbanks commercial flights

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Air France cargo executives were given the red carpet treatment June 22 by folks in Fairbanks celebrating the Paris-based airline's 10-year anniversary of operations in town.

But any future party may well be a wake for the French airline, as it has hinted it may use an airstrip in Russia as its stopover for refueling.

Air France also is purchasing three new long-range freighter aircraft this year capable of nonstop cargo service from Paris to Asia, which could bypass Fairbanks International Airport or any other North American or Russian airport.

While Air France officials enjoyed sightseeing and riverboat rides, the looming threat of the airline's pulling out of Fairbanks was like bugs in a punchbowl that everyone noticed but politely ignored, said Dave Carlstrom, Fairbanks International marketing director.

Carlstrom said the airline earlier this year had said it was considering switching from Fairbanks to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as its refueling stop, but ''aero-politics'' have stopped the move, at least for now.

An April 1 European ban on noisy aircraft has hit hard Russia's aging fleet of Soviet-era airplanes. In response, the Russians have banned some flights on shortcut routes over Siberia sought by the European carriers.

''(Air France) was unable to procure requested overflights from the Russians,'' Carlstrom told the Alaska Journal of Commerce. ''If they had been able to work out the overflight issues, it could have been au revoir.''

Air cargo companies operate on razor-thin margins and if they can save money somewhere or somehow, they will, according to Ray Keiser, an aviation consultant with Keiser Phillips Associates in Oakland, Calif.

''Airlines will use every possible economic advantage,'' Keiser said.

Air France moved its operations to Fairbanks from Anchorage in 1992 after 33 years of refueling in Alaska's largest city. The move, which followed Lufthansa in moving cargo operations to Fairbanks, saved the airline about 20 minutes in flight time between Europe and Asia. The move also may have saved the air carrier in jet fuel costs since the airport is near Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc.'s refinery at North Pole.

In the last decade, Fairbanks has recorded 3,755 freighter landings from the French carrier, which has purchased an estimated 115 million gallons of fuel and 20,000 rooms for crew lodging, Carlstrom said.

''The rule of thumb is for every gas-and-go fuel stop, $25,000 changes hands,'' Carlstrom said, adding that most of the money spent by the airline goes for refueling.

To lose the French carrier would not be devastating to Fairbanks International, but it would be significant, Carlstrom said. Air France's landing fees account for about 20 percent of Fairbanks International's annual $6 million revenues.

''It would be a major hit,'' Carlstrom said.

The best the airport can do at this time is to be a good host and hope for the best, he said.

''There are forces at work that are not in our favor,'' said Carlstrom. ''There is no other industry where major capital assets can literally fly away overnight.''

Air France has been extremely happy with Fairbanks International and does not have any plans to move out of town currently, said Ron Auge, Air France's station manager in Fairbanks.

But, he said, ''The chance is always there.''

The airstrip in Tashkent has a nearby refinery and several of the world's airlines make stopovers there.

In the past two years, Lufthansa and Air France shifted Europe-Fairbanks-Seoul, South Korea, flights to the Tashkent airstrip. Korean Air and Asiana also have shifted their Anchorage stopover to the Russian airport for their Korean flights, Carlstrom said.

''(Tashkent) has cleaned our clock on the Seoul routing,'' Carlstrom said. ''One hundred percent of Europe-to-Seoul traffic that once came through Alaska now goes through Tashkent.''

Mort Plumb, director of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said marketing studies have shown that the Russian airport would have little effect on Anchorage stopovers since nearly all traffic is routed from Asia to North America, instead of Europe to Asia, like Fairbanks.

''We would lose roughly 3 percent of our flights (to Tashkent) and none of our carriers,'' Plumb said.

The world air cargo industry is in its worst slump in more than 30 years, due more from ailing Asian and domestic economies than from the impact of the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, according to Boeing Co. research.

But the slide should be short-lived, as growth levels are projected to increase to historic growth levels by fall.

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