Alaska Logistics: Delivering Reliability Day in & Day Out
Presenting both extreme logistics challenges and prime opportunities, Alaska tests the mettle of the most resourceful and resilient logistics providers. These companies rise to the challenge.
When you consider the vast expanse of land Alaska occupies, its extreme weather, limited road and rail infrastructure, and relatively sparse population, it becomes easy to assume that developing reliable supply chains would be an impossible endeavor here. As a result, its residents and businesses would have to make do without the goods and services that are more readily available in, say, Boston or Los Angeles.
That’s not quite the case. The commitment and dedication of the companies that operate and support Alaska’s supply chains enable many residents of the 49th state to lead lives remarkably similar to those in the rest of North America—albeit, often more bundled up.
“You’d think that wouldn’t be possible, but it is,” says Art Dahlin, vice president and Alaska general manager with TOTE Maritime Alaska.
“The reliability of the Alaska supply chain, even in extreme conditions, makes it possible for Alaskans to get the goods and services enjoyed by the lower 48 communities,” says Michael Johnson, president of Span Alaska.
At the same time, “Alaska remains the closest thing to a frontier still left in North America,” Johnson says. “Even if you live in a metropolitan area, such as Anchorage or Fairbanks, you can still be steps away from the wilderness.”
Spanning about 586,400 square miles, Alaska is one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states combined, giving its approximately 734,000 residents plenty of room.
Center of the World
The state also boasts more than 33,900 miles of shoreline, including more than 6,000 miles of coastline. Alaska borders two oceans: the North Pacific and the Arctic. It’s also home to the tallest mountain in North America, Mt. Denali, and can claim 94 lakes whose surface area tops 10 square miles. “It’s a unique place,” Johnson adds.
While Alaska’s size, weather, and limited infrastructure present real challenges, the state also offers several logistical advantages. One is its location. When you look at a flat-earth map, Alaska appears “at the top and out of the way,” says Darren Prokop, Ph.D., professor of logistics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “But look at Alaska on a globe and suddenly it is at the center of the world.”
The city of Anchorage, for example, is within 9.5 hours flying time to 90% of the industrialized world. “No city in the lower 48 can say that,” he adds.
About 80% of air freight flying from Asia and destined for mainland United States is contained in air cargo freighters that lay over and refuel at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Its location has also helped make Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport a busy trans-shipment point, says Alex McKallor, chief operating officer with Lynden. The airport is equidistant between New York and Tokyo, and is the second busiest airport in the United States, based on landed weight of cargo aircraft.
“Alaska’s location offers a real opportunity for the state to develop as a global transportation and logistics hub,” Dahlin says. The Anchorage Pacific Air-to-Sea Service (ANC PASS) is one example of this potential.
ANC PASS consists of an air charter flight from Asia to Anchorage, transloading in Anchorage to an ocean vessel, and then using ocean transportation to move to Seattle/Tacoma. It then shifts to truck for delivery to the final destination.
Shortening Transit Times
This multimodal route shortens transportation time, curtails costs for traditional container lines, and avoids the West Coast port congestion that has recently hampered many shippers.
For example, transit time for shipments traveling from Shanghai over the ocean and truck typically ranges from 25 to 29 days. With ANC PASS, that drops to seven to 19 days.
And while the melting of Arctic ice prompts environmental concerns, it may benefit shippers, as sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods. Shipments currently heading from Japan to Rotterdam, Netherlands, go through the Suez Canal, for transit time of about 30 days. Shifting these shipments to the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia could cut transit time to about 18 days, the World Economic Forum estimates.
“This potentially positions Alaska to be a bigger player in the global supply chain,” Dahlin says.
This is far from a done deal, WEF notes. Eight countries—Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—lay claim to land that lies within the Arctic Circle.
Surmounting Multiple Challenges
Along with the opportunities Alaska presents come real challenges. Top among them, particularly for companies shipping retail and manufactured items, are distance, expense, and the weather.
Meeting the challenges of shipping to or through Alaska requires thorough planning, equipment built to withstand harsh weather, a commitment to reliability, and an ability to improvise.
“They’re unique challenges, but they’re not insurmountable,” Dahlin says. “You have to understand them.”
More than 90% of retail goods sold in Alaska are shipped in from the lower 48 states, Prokop says. The extra shipping distance boosts the costs of many items.
On top of this is the challenge of empty backhauls. Container loads of retail items shipped from the Port of Tacoma and unloaded in Alaska will typically be empty on the return trip. “This means that consignors in Alaska have to pay all of the transport costs incurred on the roundtrip,” Prokop adds.
Given Alaska’s vast coastline, marine transport has become the “go-to” solution for moving goods into and out of Alaska, McKallor says. Barges serve most of the state, including the many small communities scattered throughout.
As in many other areas, labor is a challenge in Alaska. A lack of drivers, mariners, pilots, mechanics, and equipment operators often boosts costs beyond the rate of inflation, McKallor says.
“Shortages of qualified CDL drivers are, and will continue to be, extremely impactful to our business,” says Christen Van Treeck, vice president with Carlile Logistics. Along with an aging workforce and attrition, some drivers are leaving the state for other opportunities and a lower cost of living elsewhere.
Companies are adapting, however. Carlile has been creative in its recruiting efforts, reaching out to potential candidates not only from within the state, but nationally, says Van Treeck. Once drivers are on board, they are trained to navigate the landscape of Alaska safely, she adds.
The University of Alaska Anchorage’s undergraduate and graduate supply chain management programs also are a great resource. “They were designed not only to teach the fundamentals, but also to help students understand the unique landscape and challenges facing Alaska,” Van Treeck says.
Relying On MultiModal Transportation
As vast as Alaska is, its land connection to the outside world depends primarily on a single two-lane road, McKallor says. The Alaskan Rail System is connected to the broader North American rail system only by barge, and it goes only as far north as Fairbanks.
Because of the limited road and rail infrastructure, “with a few exceptions, you need to think of Alaska as a bunch of islands,” McKallor says. So few places are connected by roads or bridges that almost all shipments require multimodal transportation.
Within Alaska, only roughly 20% of communities are accessible by the road system. “Any time you move freight, whether by truck, rail, or air, you run the risk of delays due to mechanical issues and weather or terrain challenges,” says Van Treeck.
What’s more, much of the freight that comes into the state is shipped “just in time,” so delays can throw off entire supply chains. “Having limited modes of transportation, compounded with weather challenges, can be highly impactful,” she adds.
The weather also impacts the timing and landed cost of shipments into Alaska. Alaskan shoppers typically can tell from bare shelves at retail stores when a vessel has been delayed by a storm. “It does not happen often; but when it does, it is noticeable,” Prokop says.
Planning for Contingencies
Alaska also is home to 70 potentially active volcanoes, and every year, more than 5,000 earthquakes rock the state. “Shippers and carriers have to plan for contingencies in case the weather or topography—or both—decide not to cooperate,” Prokop says.
These challenges make Alaska the world’s most challenging logistical laboratory outside of war zones, Prokop says. “If you can manage logistics in Alaska successfully you can do so anywhere else in the world,” he says.
Through their commitment, the following companies meet this test day in and day out.
Carlile Transportation: ‘When the Road Ends, We Keep Going’
For more than four decades, Carlile has been dedicated to connecting Alaska with the rest of the world, Van Treeck says. Through its strategically placed terminal locations across Alaska, as well as the lower 48 states and Canada, Carlile can provide tailored logistics solutions, both big and small.
“Safety, reliability, and dedication are paramount to servicing our customers,” Van Treeck says.
For companies that are shipping freight to Alaska, Carlile’s team of experienced professionals can call on their knowledge of the terrain, the climate, and the relevant regulations. With its expertise and equipment, Carlile can ensure its customers’ items are delivered safely and on time.
“We work with a variety of retail, construction, mining, commercial fishing, resource development, and grocery purveyors, and can ship anything from a one-pound box to an oversized or over-dimensional heavy-haul module,” Van Treeck says. Carlile also offers one of the widest varieties of trailers and equipment in Alaska.
The company’s shipping experts are trained to safely move hazardous materials, bulk fuels, munitions, and other hazardous loads to, from, and through Alaska. They are skilled at maintaining temperature controls when moving dry and refrigerated goods between Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 states.
In addition to providing complete logistics solutions for Alaska’s supply chains, Carlile leverages a mix of ocean, air, and road transportation to move products for Alaska’s consumers and businesses.
As many consumers in Alaska know, some retailers don’t ship to the state. Carlile’s MyConnect addresses this challenge. Alaskans can have purchases shipped from retailers in the mainland United States to Carlile’s terminal in Tacoma, Washington. From there, their packages are forwarded to a Carlile package pick-up terminal in Alaska, where consumers can claim them. This capability also allows shippers operating outside the state access to the Alaskan market.
In addition to its supply chain work, Carlile boasts a long history of helping community organizations by volunteering and offering in-kind transportation and donations. Employees are often seen at events supporting the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Covenant House, and other non-profit organizations.
For more than 20 years, Carlile has been providing hoodies to every student at its partner school, Mountain View Elementary, ensuring the children can stay warm during Alaska’s colder months. High-visibility colors help keep them safe as they walk to and from school in the dark winter months.
When it comes to Alaskan logistics, Carlile’s expertise, experience, and rugged equipment allow it to deliver seamless, reliable solutions, so shippers can be confident their cargo will arrive on time, intact, and on budget. For more than 40 years, Carlile and its employees have remained true to its mission: “When the road ends, we keep going.”
Lynden: Doing Tough Things in Tough Places
Lynden’s experience in Alaska goes back almost 70 years. In the early 1950s, few thought delivery trucks could safely drive the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway, which runs from Victoria, British Columbia past Juneau.
But in 1954, the first Lynden Transfer Kenworth left Seattle with a load of fresh meat, headed for Alaska. Two drivers made the four-day trip and safely delivered the shipment. With that trip, Alaskans gained access to fresh produce, meat, and other foods.
Embarking on deliveries to Alaska “requires expertise in multimodal transportation and the ability to take complexity out of the process for customers, and offer seamless door-to-door service,” says Lynden’s Alex McKallor. “We listen to customers and then craft solutions to address their challenges.”
Leveraging Transportation Modes
Moving shipments to Alaska typically requires leveraging three or four transportation modes. Lynden coordinates much of this behind the scenes, so customers can focus on the rest of their business, confident their shipments will get where they need to.
Lynden offers shippers several routing options, including air, marine, and highway, for both less-than-truckload (LTL) and truckload.
“We offer options so you can pay for the speed you need,” McKallor says. For instance, road trips over the Alcan highway tend to go faster than shipments that move by boat, but are also more expensive. An integrated technology platform offers door-to-door visibility in real time.
Lynden’s customer base ranges from small businesses to some of the largest retail, energy, and other companies around. “It runs the gamut,” McKallor says. No matter the size or industry, Lynden uses its expertise and equipment to ensure shipments arrive on time and intact.
In early 2023, Lynden coordinated a multimodal effort to move a critical engine part that was needed to support oil drilling operations near Prudhoe Bay.
To start, a Lynden Hercules cargo plane flew the crated engine from Bethel, Alaska, to Anchorage, a trip of about 400 miles. A driver then “hotshot” the part by truck about 900 miles over the often-treacherous Dalton Highway to Point Oliktok, about 50 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. From there, a hovercraft delivered the part to its final destination.
“Our theme is doing tough things in tough places,” McKallor says. “It’s hard work and a lot of companies shy away from it. But we do it safely day in and day out.”
Span Alaska: Customers First
Span Alaska ships more than 400 million pounds of freight annually to Alaska. With its customer-first culture, Span Alaska strives to be the best freight transportation solution for the often-challenging Alaskan terrain, says President Michael Johnson. It serves all points in the state, moving more LCL (less-than-containerload) freight than any other carrier in the state.
“Our goal is to be a customer-focused and quality-driven provider that is an incredibly reliable part of the supply chain,” says Johnson.
The company launched in 1978, and through the decades grew into one of the largest freight companies serving Alaska. In August 2016, Matson Logistics acquired Span Alaska. “Because of Span Alaska’s significant volume, we can direct load into all our service centers, even the smaller locations,” Johnson says.
“The dedicated, direct loading of containers from Tacoma to each service center in Alaska ensures minimal cargo rehandling, reduced transit times, and security seal integrity from origin to destination,” he adds.
Making Strategic Moves
Span Alaska’s business continues to evolve and grow. Management has made strategic acquisitions of logistics companies that are similarly committed to Alaska and added chill/freeze capabilities. Span Alaska also offers KFF (keep from freezing) options, typically from late September through mid-April.
Its new, 88-door Anchorage Service Center opened in 2019, and it is expanding its footprint in Fairbanks with a larger, state-of-the-art service center scheduled to open in summer 2023.
Along with its 93-door consolidation center in Auburn, Washington, Span Alaska operates service centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Kodiak, and Wasilla. Shipments from the lower 48 move via containership from Tacoma via twice-weekly, non-stop service to Anchorage, and then final delivery via road and rail throughout Alaska. Vessels also call on Kodiak and Dutch Harbor each week.
Span Alaska also offers barge services to and from Southeast Alaska, as well as Central and Western Alaska. While a longer transit, it’s a cost-effective option for breakbulk, oversize shipments, and containers of all sizes: 20, 40, 45, and 53 feet.
The company also offers southbound shipping from Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and Anchorage to the Port of Tacoma once weekly. For shippers whose packages need to move past Tacoma, Span Alaska can transport them via truck or rail to any location across the lower 48 states and Canada.
While most Span Alaska shipments travel via a combination of ocean and road, the company also leverages air transport, often when time is critical. It also turns to rail service, typically when transporting shipments that are heavier and difficult to move over the road. “No matter what, we get our customers’ freight where it needs to go,” Johnson says.
Because of its expertise, Span Alaska can offer customers a streamlined, user-friendly experience. “It’s seamless from the time you give us a shipment until it’s delivered,” Johnson says. “And that’s both the physical movement of the shipment and virtual monitoring, providing instant tracking and all of the documentation that accompanies every move.”
Along with its equipment and technology, Span Alaska’s employees are critical to the company’s ongoing, reliable ability to move shipments in Alaska’s often punishing terrain and extreme weather.
“All of us take pride in solving challenges and being part of the supply chain that enables life in Alaska to be very much like it is anywhere else,” Johnson says. “It’s purposeful work.”
TOTE Maritime Alaska: Focused on the Customer Experience
A quality customer experience is one of TOTE Maritime Alaska’s core values, says Art Dahlin, vice president and Alaska general manager. TOTE’s ships move about one-third of goods heading to Alaska’s Rail Belt Region, which runs approximately from Seward up to Fairbanks. The vessels have been built to meet “ice class” specifications, and their four engines and two propellers, among other features, allow them to efficiently move cargo where it needs to go.
“These ships were built to serve the people and communities of Alaska, reliably and efficiently no matter the circumstances,” says Dahlin.
Even as TOTE leverages the experience it has gained over its nearly five decades of working in Alaska, management continues to innovate. TOTE is in the final phases of converting its fleet to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“It is an historic project,” Dahlin says. “Once complete, our entire fleet will run on LNG.”
TOTE is also investing in its customer portal, working with customers to refine it and make sure it’s adding the value they want. “We’re engaged in a process of continuous improvement,” Dahlin says.
With decades of experience in Alaska, TOTE can call on its expertise to guide its twice-weekly service between Tacoma, Washington and Anchorage. Transit times and port turn times are industry-leading, with drivers often moving through the gate and returning to the road in less than 20 minutes.
TOTE also can adeptly handle military moves across the Gulf of Alaska, including weekly Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) shipments, cold-weather training cargo, and brigade-sized and division-level moves.
“We assemble a project team and work closely with stakeholders to make sure we have a safe solution,” Dahlin says.
Speed, Safety, Reliability
Through its fleet of roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) cargo ships, TOTE offers speed, safety, and reliability. “If it rolls, our ships can accommodate it,” Dahlin says.
Once the ships are docked, shipments can be unloaded and on store shelves within two hours. “All our equipment is designed to quickly turn cargo in and out of the ports,” Dahlin says.
To ensure the entire state can access the supply chain, TOTE Maritime Alaska works closely with transportation partners, including line haul trucks going to Fairbanks and air freight to reach the outer villages.
“It’s pretty impressive to see the whole supply chain work together as well as it does,” Dahlin says. “Alaska is an incredibly beautiful and unique place and we’re proud to have served the state for nearly 50 years.”
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