Do you remember Geometry class? It has everything to do with why Anchorage is the 6th-busiest cargo airport in the world.

With 242 state owned airports, Alaska has the largest aviation system in the world.

John Binder is in charge of it.

Binder is the deputy commissioner of transportation for aviation in the state. He explained to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (11-1-17) why — for such an out of the way place — Alaska plays such a major role in global aviation.

Downloadable audio.

It’s only on flat maps that Alaska looks like a detour, on a flight between say, Beijing and Minneapolis. On a globe, it’s almost a straight line, called a Great Circle.

173 of Alaska’s airports are gravel, according to Binder, and many are experiencing hardship from melting permafrost and accelerated coastal erosion. Although his job isn’t political, Binder seemed frustrated about his relationship with the state’s congressional delegation — particularly Sen. Dan Sullivan, who remains skeptical about climate change. “I talk to them all the time,” said Binder. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Why do people stop in Alaska, when we’ve got all these new aircraft that can fly thousands and thousands of miles? Why do they need to stop here? We are on the Great Circle route between Asia and North America. If you look at it on a global perspective, everything coming from Asia to the US essentially passes over the top of Alaska. And in order to make it that full distance, you either have to sacrifice some of your cargo weight to put on more fuel, or you sacrifice the fuel and load up cargo full, but you can’t make it all the way to your destination. You’ve got to stop somewhere, and we’re about the only place you can stop. So it works out great for us.

Binder said the same is true of air traffic between Asia and South America, which he described as “starting to boom.”

As a result, Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport is the 6th-busiest cargo destination in the world. Combined, the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports support themselves through a tariff agreement with the 31 carriers who use them. No state dollars are spent to operate them, and Binder said both were “thriving.”

Alaska’s other 240 airports, however, require major state support. Together, rural airport systems cost $39 million to operate, but generate only $5 million — mainly in rental income.

Binder explained that global climate patterns were not making airport maintenance any easier.

As we’ve seen the climate getting warmer and some seasonal patterns changing, a lot of our permafrost is starting to melt, so we’re getting some heaving. We’re getting a lot more freeze-thaw cycles, and freezing rain and drizzle which is just a nightmare for the state. We’d much rather just have it snow. You can sweep that off with a broom. But if that thing’s melted, you have a world of hurt.

Just in the past week of freezing rain in Fairbanks, the airport there has spent a quarter of its de-icing budget applying 5,000 gallons of chemical to the runways in order to remain open.

“A good, safe airport,” says Binder, referring to Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport, which often makes the top 10 lists on social media of “the scariest airports.” Binder says the state has stockpiled material to fill in the lagoons and build a parallel taxiway, but negotiations with the BLM for the final land purchase have been moving slowly. (Coast&Harbor Engineering photo)

Binder mentioned that Sitka and Ketchikan are unique in Alaska’s airport system, since both communities own their airport terminals. Elsewhere, the airport facilities are owned either by the state or the airlines.

The state recently completed an airport safety improvement project on Sitka’s runway, but to most incoming passengers it still looks incredibly small, given the size of Sitka Sound which surrounds it.

A former member of the Air Force, Binder said he wasn’t too worried landing in Sitka.

When it’s gusty out there it can get your attention (laughter). But no, I’ve flown into worse. Overall, I think you have a nice, safe airport.

Nevertheless, Binder said he was glad to visit Sitka on a sunny day.