Coronavirus and plane travel: A a city smaller than Canberra now has the world's busiest airport

"TFS International Airport" doesn't sound quite as sexy as "JFK International Airport", but the former facility is currently making a lot of noise in the world of aviation.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, named in honour of long-serving Republican senator Theodore Fulton Stevens Senior, last weekend became the world's busiest airport.

That's despite the fact that Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, has a smaller population than Canberra, Australia (about 290,000). What's more, in the next week or so, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has more departures scheduled than even London's Heathrow (948 versus 682), according to the live air traffic website FlightRadar24.com

It was only a few months ago that Heathrow was Europe's main airport hub with more than 80 million passengers annually (see photo gallery above) passing through it.

Anchorage Airport's new prominence is a stark, if not surreal, illustration of how dramatically air traffic has declined around the world and why cargo is the new aviation cult.

Once the full effects of the pandemic struck, Heathrow was forced to reduce itself to a single runway and close most of its terminal buildings. OAG (Official Aviation Guide) reports that in the past week 164 airlines around the globe which operated scheduled services in the week of January 20 now have none.

Freight, as unglamorous and sans passengers and flight attendants as it is, is, temporarily at least, the great white-winged hope of global aviation, according to Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

"It is the bright spot for the industry because it is the only part that is operating and earning revenue at any scale," he says. "With most of the [world's] passenger fleet sitting idle, airlines are doing their best to meet demand by adding freighter services, including adapting passenger aircraft to all-cargo activity."

Indeed, de Juniac says the demand for air freight shipments of pharmaceutical shipments critical to the pandemic crisis are double the volume of last year, even excluding medical equipment. Down under, Australia Post, overwhelmed by demands for parcel delivery by house-bound Australians indulging in retail therapy, this week announced it would charter an extra eight freight flights, taking the total to 17 air freight flights a day.

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But these freight-focused flights don't substitute for the space normally available on passenger planes operated by carriers such as Qantas and Virgin Australia – which have been slashed due to the coronavirus. As a result Australia Post can't promise that its deliveries will happen as quickly as they did before the pandemic.

Now Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport has a mere 323 departures scheduled in the next week while Melbourne International Airport has only 240 departures set for the next seven days, according to FlightRadar24.com

Back in America's 49th state, the passenger terminal at Alaska's busiest airport, which normally serves five million passengers per year, is deserted due to the collapse in air travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But its location makes it ideal for cargo. The airport is less than 9.5 hours from 90 per cent of the industrial world, making it perfectly located as a cargo hub for the rest of the US where demand for parcels is also sky-high.

Fame has its disadvantages and Alaskans, according to the Anchorage Daily News, are concerned that cargo airlines and their small crews are exempted from the state's COVID-19 quarantine order. The first person in Alaska to test positive for COVID-19 was a cargo pilot passing through Anchorage International Airport.

Airlines argue that observing a 14-day quarantine rule wouldn't stop pilots from moving crucial goods around the world at a time when keeping the supply chain from disruption is vital. Pilots, in the meantime, are being told to minimise their exposure to the general population and observe social distancing, according to Jim Mayer, a spokesman for United Parcel Service (UPS).

The new cargo cult's days may be numbered though since OAG reports that a number of regions around the world increase flights as countries begin to emerge from pandemic lockdowns. Turkish Airlines is set to recommence domestic services on May 1 while Chinese carriers are adding flights back ahead of China's Labour Day holiday this week which runs for a five-day period.

The world's 10 busiest airports: Then and now

1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), United States

Total annual passengers pre-pandemic 107,394,029

Scheduled flight departures in the next week 2242

2. Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), China

Total passengers 100,983,290

Scheduled departures in the next week 2309

3. Dubai International Airport (DXB), United Arab Emirates

Total passengers 89,189,387

Scheduled departures in the next week 506

4. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), US

Total passengers 87,534,384

Scheduled departures in the next week 1818

5. Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND), Japan

Total passengers 87,131,973

Scheduled departures in next week 3,222

6. O'Hare International Airport, Chicago (ORD), US

Total passengers 83,339,186

Scheduled departures in the next week 300

7. London Heathrow Airport (LHR), United Kingdom

Total passengers 80,126,320

Scheduled departures in the next week 713

8. Hong Kong International Airport (HKA), China

Total passengers 74,517,402

Scheduled departures in the next week 1021

9. Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), China

Total passengers 74,006,331

Scheduled departures in the next week 3220

10. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), France

Total passengers 72,229,723

Scheduled departures in the next week 619

Sources: International Airport Review; FlightRadar24.com

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