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Airport design in Alaska: 5 things to consider

America’s largest state’s vast and rugged terrain provides a unique set of airport design challenges

By Johnathan Limb, Senior Civil Engineer (Anchorage, AK)

The Importance of Aviation in Alaska

It’s no secret that Alaska is BIG. It’s roughly one fifth the size of the U.S. lower 48 and twice the size of Texas. East to west, Alaska is 2,400 miles – about the same distance as New York City to Los Angeles. (And if you like the Olympic-sized swimming pool comparison, you can fit 1,374,400,000 of those into Alaska!)

With such large, rugged land mass, getting to many Alaska communities is a challenge. An in-state highway system in Alaska would include roads similar to that NYC-to-LA route and also roads that stretched from the U.S.-Canadian border into Texas. So it’s no surprise that 82% of Alaskan communities are not accessible by road. That’s why, in Alaska, we fly – almost everywhere.

Alaska’s Aviation System: A Quick Overview

Alaska has:

  • 401 public-use airports
  • 283 land-based
  • 43 heliports
  • 114 seaplane bases (the most in the country)
  • More than 700 recorded landing areas (private, public and military)

This doesn’t include the various off-airport locations that bush and seaplane pilots use where there are no facilities. During the summer, flying is used for popular tourist activities such as flightseeing, fly-in fishing, remote cabin access and mountain climbing, making aviation a major contributor to the Alaska economy.

          [Related Item: More Airport Design Insights at The Airports Hub]

The state’s aviation system tends to operate according to a hub system. Most passengers arrive at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport then fly to hubs around the state – Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Barrow, and Nome to name a few. From there, passengers head out to the surrounding villages via small general aviation aircraft operated by air taxis.

Airport Design: 5 Things to Consider

  1. Funding. A majority of the airports in Alaska (254) are owned by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Most of them serve Native Alaskan villages – subsistence communities with limited city operations, let alone the funds to operate an airport. In the larger cities on the road system, there are municipal and city-owned airports, but their numbers are few compared to state-owned airports. The state’s largest municipal airport is in Juneau, the state capital. The facilities are almost exclusively constructed using Airport Improvement Program grants.
  2. Geography. Construction of an aviation system this large is a challenge. Logistics, weather, lack of suitable construction materials and permafrost all escalate the construction costs and must be considered during the design. Most rural airports consist of a 3,300-foot lighted gravel runway, with a short gravel taxiway and apron with no terminal or heated passenger waiting area.
    And remember, Alaska is home to 14 major mountain ranges and more than 33,000 miles of coastline (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The place we call home is rugged!
  3. Materials. Around most of the state, good construction materials tend to be scarce. Frequently, rural sites are situated on tundra atop permafrost. For these projects, the gravel fills have to be entirely imported by barge from rock or gravel sources that may be a few miles upriver or, in many cases, hundreds of miles away. It’s expensive and time consuming.
  4. Construction season. Throughout much of the state, the construction season is limited to a 3-to-5-month window starting in May or June before winter conditions become too severe to place fill materials.
  5. Maintaining operations. Closing airports for construction is almost never an option since the communities rely on aviation as their main form of transportation and delivery of goods, including food. Most Alaska airports do not have a parallel taxiway. Shifting air traffic off the runway isn’t an option, so many activities have to be planned around flights or are completed at night. (At least we have nearly round-the-clock daylight during that short season.)
    For communities like Barrow or Kotzebue, which see daily jet traffic, construction is usually completed in half-width, while the other half is used for air traffic. It’s one of the ways designers get to be creative.

As an aviation engineer, I have the opportunity to fly to and work in these communities, seeing an Alaska that many tourists – and even most residents – rarely see. And although the state continues to build roads, the shear vastness of Alaska and inaccessibility of much of its terrain has firmly cemented aviation as a primary mode of transportation to isolated communities.

Johnathan Limb is an Anchorage, Alaska-based civil engineer and aviation expert. He was recently selected as one of the top young professionals in the Northwest by Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine. Stantec has been providing aviation design and construction administration services in Alaska for the past 40 years.

A shot from Wiley Post–Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow, Alaska.

Closing airports for construction is almost never an option since the communities rely on aviation as their main form of transportation and delivery of goods.

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