A Wings Airways floatplane takes off from Juneau’s downtown harbor as the Norwegian Bliss leaves it port of call on July 31, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

A Wings Airways floatplane takes off from Juneau’s downtown harbor as the Norwegian Bliss leaves it port of call on July 31, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Keeping it all in the air: How does Juneau handle all its air traffic?

With helicopters, floatplanes and airlines, here’s how air traffic control controls the chaos

Juneau is witness to an awful lot of air traffic.

Between commercial flights, helicopter tours and floatplane traffic, Juneau International Airport can get more than 1,000 arrivals and departures, both rotary and fixed wing, in a single day, said Rob Swinton, an air traffic controller and local representative for the National Air Traffic Controller Association. Between the local conditions and the level of traffic, Swinton said, that can be quite a job.

“There’s tons of aircraft operating in the vicinity of Juneau,” said Joe Sprague, CEO of Wings Airways.

Creating order from the chaos is an all-hands effort. To deal with that, the flight operations companies and the FAA have attacked the issue from several directions. One is applying technology, which the air control tower does, allowing for quicker, better information. The other is procedure.

A TEMSCO helicopter lifts off from the Juneau International, May 27, 2015.

A TEMSCO helicopter lifts off from the Juneau International, May 27, 2015.

“To better manage that, the commercial aircraft operators have had a letter of agreement,” Sprague said. “We basically have set patterns that we fly and we don’t deviate from those patterns.”

Agreed upon by all commercial operators with help from the FAA, the letter of agreement is a public document lining out all the procedures to be followed by all aircraft in the vicinity of Juneau, as well as other popular destinations in the region. In a year that’s been especially bad for floatplane crashes, this is one facet of a plan to keep planes, pilots and passengers operating safely.

“The one thing that I really do believe is unique about Juneau is the collaborative nature of the different operators in Juneau is really strong,” Sprague said.

The agreements cover such things as who flies where, at what altitude and in what direction. It also covers approach angles and procedures, radio frequencies and a thousand other details essential to running a crowded, complicated airspace.

Juneau Youth Services to close Cornerstone youth shelter

“It’s a very defined, very precise plan,” Sprague said.

The air traffic controllers themselves have one of the busiest jobs of keeping all the flights coming and going organized. Any flight within a certain perimeter of the airport is required to radio the tower.

“Your typical busy summer day will see four to five controllers in the tower at a time working in concert with each other to keep the airport running smoothly,” Swinton said.

Alaska Airlines flight 75 circles over Juneau as fog delayed it and other north and south bound flights on December 11, 2012.

Alaska Airlines flight 75 circles over Juneau as fog delayed it and other north and south bound flights on December 11, 2012.

Other issues for fliers around here are more local problems. The geography of the airport makes radar, which relies on line of sight operation, a nonviable option. Swinton says they work around this, using other technology to replace the capability that radar would give them otherwise. The other issue something more obvious and relatable for everyone.

“I would say that our biggest challenge, in addition to the terrain, would be weather,” Swinton said. Juneau’s unique geography and climatic conditions create fast moving and fast changing weather conditions from valley to valley. This can lead to disaster, as fliers in Alaska have learned time and time again. Training also helps ameliorate this problem, said Swinton.

Altogether, flying around Juneau isn’t easy, especially with the crowded airspace and frequent weather issues. But with technology and rigid procedure, the FAA and the local operators make it work, and make it work well.


• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.


More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Sept. 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Faith Rogers’ family, from left to right, James Rogers (father), Michelle Rogers (sister), Harmony Wentz (daughter), Maria Rogers (mother) and Mindy Voigt (friend) sit with Faith’s three dogs in their family home. Faith Rogers, 55, of Juneau was found dead along a popular trail on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Police are investigating the death as a homicide. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
‘It’s shocking’: Family hopes for answers after suspicious death of loved one

“She wanted to make things beautiful, to help make people beautiful…”

People work together to raise the Xa’Kooch story pole, which commemorates the Battle of the Inian Islands. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)
Resilient Peoples & Place: The Xa’Kooch story pole — one step toward a journey of healing

“This pole is for the Chookaneidi, but here among us, many clans are represented…”

A bracket fungus exudes guttation drops and a small fly appears to sip one of them.( Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Water drops on plants

Guttation drops contain not only water but also sugars, proteins, and probably minerals.

A chart shows what critics claim is poor financial performance by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, especially in subsidizing private industry projects intended to boost the state’s economy, during its 55-year existence. The chart is part of a report released Tuesday criticizing the agency. (MB Barker/LLC Erickson & Associates/EcoSystems LLC)
AIDEA’s fiscal performance fishy, critics say

Report presented by salmon industry advocates asserts state business subsidy agency cost public $10B

Police vehicles gather Wednesday evening near Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as ]]Brotherhood Bridge Trail, while investigating a homicide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Police: Woman was walking dogs when she was killed

JPD said officers are working “around the clock” on the criminal investigation.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew-member observes a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across the guided missile cruiser from the People's Republic of China, officials said Monday, Sept. 26.  (U.S. Coast Guard District 17 via AP)
Patrol spots Chinese, Russian naval ships off Alaska island

This wasn’t the first time Chinese naval ships have sailed near Alaska waters.

An Alaska judge has ruled that a state lawmaker affiliated with the Oath Keepers, Rep. David Eastman, shown in this February 2022 photo, may stay on the general election ballot in November even though he's likely ineligible to hold public office  (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Judge keeps Oath Keepers lawmaker on November ballot

Judge ordered delaying certifying the result of the race until a trial scheduled for December.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok moved into the region. It was a massive storm system — big enough to cover the mainland U.S. from the Pacific Ocean to Nebraska and from Canada to Texas. It influenced weather systems as far away as California, where a rare late-summer storm dropped rain on the northern part of the state, offering a measure of relief to wildfire crews but also complicating fire suppression efforts because of mud and loosened earth. (AP Photo / Peggy Fagerstrom)
Repair work begins in some Alaska towns slammed by storm

ANCHORAGE — There’s been significant damage to some roads and homes in… Continue reading

Most Read