ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport is among the top five cargo hubs in the world, with wide-body freighters stopping for fuel here before they lumber to the Lower 48 or back to Asia, making it a possibly underestimated entry point of entry for the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.
The coronavirus, sometimes called the Wuhan virus, has spread quickly; five cases have been confirmed in the U.S. in as many days. It is being considered responsible for at least 56 deaths in China since being identified in Wuhan on Dec. 1. The Chinese government announced the virus Dec 31. Numerous conspiracy theories have developed linking biological warfare labs in Wuhan with the spread of the virus.
Flights directly from Wuhan to Anchorage arrive at least twice a week. The next one arrives on Monday as Asiana Air makes its usual pit stop. The crew of Asiana stays overnight in Anchorage, as pilots are swapped out and the carrier continues on to Chicago, loaded with merchandise for America.
Hundreds of cargo jets come and go through Anchorage weekly on the way to other mainland destinations. Many are FedEx and UPS flights, and Cathay Air, Korea Air, and they come through from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kwong Chow, Wuhan, and other manufacturing hubs in the Far East.
Anchorage is the busiest cargo pit stop in the world that no cargo stays at or originates from. In terms of overall tonnage, Anchorage is only behind Hong Kong, Memphis, Shanghai and Incheon.
Sen. Dan Sullivan made a statement this week, reminding Alaskans that the chance of acquiring the virus from a package is almost zero. But actually, the crews of these cargo planes are not without risk. Some of the carriers, such as Atlas, FedEx, and UPS are sending out bulletins to remind pilots to wash their hands and consider wearing masks in China, and to also consider staying away from highly populated locations, such as malls or markets.
Greater Anchorage and Mat-Su is the base for between 300-500 pilots, many who come and go from China or other points in Asia on a daily basis. They fly for FedEx and UPS, and Atlas. Some pilots may go back and forth to China three times in a two-week period. Pilots for Alaska or Delta, fly between Anchorage and Hawaii, which is a major destination for tourists from Asia.
Must Read Alaska interviewed a cargo pilot who flies that route between Hong Kong or Shanghai and Anchorage, and who flies from Anchorage cargo hubs in the Lower 48, before returning home to Southcentral Alaska.
He said that while in China, pilots stay in hotels for between 24 hours and four days. Sometimes they are stuck there when typhoons come through and planes cannot fly.
During their stays, pilots leave their hotel rooms, mingle with the population as they go to restaurants for meals, and interact with loaders and freight managers, all of whom are also exposed to whatever pathogens are floating through the air in their commutes, stores, and neighborhoods.
“It’s the kind of thing that can keep you up at night,” the pilot said. With the speed of commerce, and having people move around the globe so quickly, the spread of the Wuhan virus is not only a heath concern, but a worry for commerce and the jobs associated with it.
One in every 10 jobs in Anchorage is a result of activity associated with the Ted Stevens International Airport. Flights from the Far East use the North Terminal, and a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is assigned to Anchorage and is monitoring the North Terminal. No word whether any extra measures have been taken to monitor the health of the crews as they disembark from what is currently the hot zone for the coronavirus.
The coronavirus appears to be contagious as much as two weeks before symptoms appear, according to the Chinese government.
Most of the original cases of the virus were in people exposed to a seafood market in Wuhan that also has other wild meats for sale, such as bats and snakes. Some genetic science indicates the outbreak was traced to fruit bats, which gives it a commonality with the SARS virus outbreak in 2003 that killed 740 people and sickened thousands. SARS was also known as the avian flu or bird flu.
While Anchorage has direct flights from Wuhan, very few humans are coming on those planes from Asia at this time of year.
Tourism season will bring more through the airport and on cruise ships, which will create challenges at the Ted Stevens International Airport and port cities in Southeast Alaska. The first cruise ship arrives in Alaska in late April, docking in Juneau on April 24.
Industry experts estimate more than 10,000 Chinese tourists will visit Alaska this year.