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Growing air traffic creating problems in skies over Anchorage

Posted: Monday, November 06, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The skies over Alaska's largest city are getting so crowded that federal aviation officials acted this summer to avoid disaster, and they say still more work needs to be done to keep the airspace safe.

Take-offs and landings at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Lake Hood, Merrill Field, Elmendorf Air Force Base and smaller private lakes and strips have risen by more than 16 percent over the past five years.

Air traffic controllers have handled about 325,000 of those takeoffs and landings over the past three years. They predict that number will continue to grow, especially because of increases in the air cargo business.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently called together air carriers, private pilots and military aviators to write some new rules for Anchorage airspace.

''The point of this whole process is to figure out how we can use a finite resource, the airspace, with a growing need,'' FAA air traffic manager Bill Chord told the Anchorage Daily News.

Although air passengers may not have noticed, the crowded skies over Anchorage have been creating bigger and bigger problems for air traffic controllers and pilots.

The FAA's Anchorage Approach Control manages aircraft in a roughly 30-mile radius around the city. In 1996, it handled just under 300,000 takeoffs and landings. Last year, it handled 326,000.

At Ted Stevens International, jet cargo and passenger traffic has increased from 82,096 landings in 1996 to 93,541 landings so far this year.

Cargo jet traffic alone has risen nearly 10.5 percent just in the past year, according to airport statistics.

Traffic patterns and practices for getting planes in and out of Anchorage haven't changed much in the past 15- to 20 years despite the growth in air traffic.

The crowding caused controllers to delay takeoffs and hold planes in the air several times a week last year, officials said.

A partial fix was ordered this summer, which required more restrictions on takeoffs, landings and altitudes around Anchorage.

Even the military was feeling the pinch last summer.

Lt. Col. Mike Loughlin is chief of Elmendorf's 3rd Wing standardization and evaluation. His job is to ensure that all Elmendorf pilots keep up on their training. That includes completing a specified number of instrument landings.

But this year was the first time that military pilots had to put off some of that training because Anchorage skies were too crowded.

''This is the first summer where we've actually been denied,'' Loughlin said. ''We'd request (instrument flight rules) and were told, 'Go away. Come back later.' ''

FAA officials hope some new rules will be in place by the winter of 2002.

''We're at the stage now where more structure is probably needed,'' said Felix Maguire, president of the Alaska Airmen's Association, with a membership of about 1,200 mostly private pilots in the state.

''This is not like Seattle, and we don't want to be. So the FAA is being proactive now to prevent problems.''



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