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On the right track

Alexander Hannaford discovers more about the infrastructure and customer service development plans of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

It may not be as grand as it once was, but Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s revised capital development plan certainly does not lack vision and, in its way, is equally as ambitious as its multi-billion dollar predecessor.

For Plan B is to transform its existing Terminal 3 into a modern new facility that will allow the airport to accommodate growth of up to 58mppa and eventually allow for the closure of Terminal 2, its smallest and oldest terminal, built in 1962 when the biggest aircraft handled at the gateway was a B707.

According to the airport’s assistant aviation director, Chad Makovsky, the logic behind the move is simple – Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX) no longer needs a new $2 billion west terminal and has a perfectly good building at its disposal that “just needs updating”.

The original decision to build the new 33-gate west terminal was taken back in 2007 when passenger traffic at PHX was at its peak – 42 million people passed through the gateway that year – and forecasters predicted that annual throughput would reach 50mppa by 2015, explains Makovsky.

The plan was officially shelved in 2008, and with traffic currently hovering around the 40mppa mark, Makovsky told Airport World that PHX could no longer justify the $2 billion expense of a new terminal on current forecasts.

He notes: “The decision was made after receiving extensive feedback from the industry and our customer base. We understood that airlines rarely grow in ‘whole-terminal’ increments. The upgrade proved to be the more responsible path forward.”

So, Plan B was approved last year and the estimated $500 million facelift of Terminal 3 is expected to begin this year and take place in three phases up to 2020.

The ambitious project will include expanded checkpoints, additional ticket counters, larger baggage processing capacity and more baggage claim carousels, more food concessions and shops, more gates, and an expanded kerb for dropping off and picking up passengers.

Makovsky reveals that the airport recognised that despite being built in 1979, Terminal 3 was still very viable, but that it had “not kept up with current trends” since its last revamp 17 years ago.

“US Airways and American are getting married, so we co-located them in Terminal 4 in February,” Makovsky says. “It was very timely and it allows us to do construction in T3 with vacant gates. 

“Terminal 3 is initially going from a 15 to 26 gate capacity, after which we can increase it by two-to-three gate increments without having to build a whole new terminal.”

The appeal of Phoenix

Dubbed ‘America’s friendliest airport,’ PHX sees more than 1,200 flights per day and handles upwards of 40 million passengers a year. Its major carriers are US Airways and Southwest Airlines.

You may think that due to Phoenix’s geographical location – just under 400 miles east of Los Angeles – that most airline passengers are using PHX as a hub to get somewhere else. But most of them aren’t. 

Businesses, museums, restaurants and spas in the city itself, as well as rugged mountains and deserts on the outskirts (not to mention the fact that the Grand Canyon is just a three-hour drive to the north) attract both business travellers and tourists who account for 65 to 70% of Sky Harbor’s passenger traffic.

“We are both a hub for one particular area and a focus city,” Makovsky explains. “We don’t take passenger activity for granted. We have a nice leisure market here — we are a tourist destination and there are a lot of reasons people want to come to Phoenix. 

“What’s great about this airport and this community is that there is such a strong business and tourist base, meaning that only 30% to 35% of passengers use it as a hub,” he says.

Makovsky says the airport is just four or five miles from downtown Phoenix and it has major freeways coming in from both the east and west of the airport.

“All roads lead to Sky Harbor — we’re the nerve centre for the arterial — but that can also pose operational issues,” he says. 

“When freeways are gridlocked at 5pm, a lot of people will take the road straight through Sky Harbor to get around that congestion. Most airports are in a cul-de-sac layout, with only one road in, but it’s different with us: people who use our roadways may not be doing business at the airport at all. So we did some research into ways we could alleviate that congestion.”

The answer was the PHX Sky Train, which was also part of PHX’s 2007 master plan, but unlike the ill-fated west terminal, became a reality last year.


PHX Sky Train

Stage 1 of the Bombardier operated automated people mover (APM) system opened in April last year and now transports people from Terminal 4, which currently deals with the vast majority of the airport’s traffic, to its biggest economy parking area, and the light rail – a public transport system which connects with downtown and the rest of the Valley (Phoenix is nicknamed the Valley of the Sun).

“It’s the only automated people-mover to go over an active taxiway in the world,” Makovsky says. “You can fit a B747 under the bridge with no problem and BA does it on a regular basis. It’s beautiful.”

The fact that passengers can connect from the airport to the light rail means less traffic on the roads to and from the airport.

The next stage of the Sky Train is stated to open in early 2015 and will connect to Terminal 3 and see a walkway installed linking to Terminal 2 (there is no Terminal 1 at PHX — it was demolished in 1991). The final stage will connect with the rental car centre but no date has been set for its completion.

“In 2015 we’ll see all three terminals connected by the Sky Train,” Makovsky says. “And we’re hosting the Super Bowl next year, so it’s perfect timing.”

Customer service

He insists the ‘friendliest airport’ slogan isn’t trite. “It’s engrained in our culture here at Phoenix and it’s what’s what makes us unique. We heard it from our customers and thought we should embrace it.”

It’s going that extra mile to offer that added touch of customer service, Makovsky says. Indeed, according to Makovsky, PHX’s staff recognise that customers are pretty stressed out when they come to an airport and good customer service can help alleviate some of that stress. 

“We coined that five or six years ago and it was the result of us embracing what our customers are looking for. So we began training staff and empowering them and we extended that to our contracted stakeholders like TSA and skycaps [luggage handlers or porters],” he says.

“When they go through their training we provide them extra customer service training too so they understand our culture and philosophy and we reward that through various programmes.”

There are new restaurant concessions in T4, and Makovsky says these include some fantastic concepts and have been popular with passengers. In addition, PHX requires vendors to impose street pricing in every food concession. 

“You’ll pay the exact same amount for a burger in the airport as you’ll pay in downtown Phoenix,” he notes. It may not sound like much, but most passengers assume that there’s an airside mark-up. 

“I’ve talked to people who have actually made a day trip with their family to hop on the light rail and come to T4 in order to have a bite to eat at a restaurant here, visit our in-airport art museum, and people-watch,” enthuses Makovsky.

Free Wi-Fi is standard in some — but by no means all — US airports, but Makovsky says he knows customers love it and that’s why it’s imperative it’s offered. 

“I know people get frustrated when it isn’t free, so we were early adapters in that area,” he admits. He says the airport used to facilitate this in-house, but as travellers began to connect to the Wi-Fi using multiple devices — mobile phones, computers, iPads — the time came for a change in the way it was offered.

“The demand for service had outgrown our ability to service the community using Wi-Fi in-house,” Makovsky says. “We had long been known for a free service, so we decided to provide a tiered service.” 

As a result, PHX will soon have an enhanced Wi-Fi programme that offers a free service at the same speed as before, then, as Makovsky puts it, if you want to download a movie, or stream at higher speeds, you can subscribe to a higher speed service. “It was the recognition that different customers have different needs,” he says. 

“The business versus the leisure customer. So if someone wants the extra speed, they might want to pay for the premium feed.”

Terminal 2

As always when anything old closes, the news of the end for Terminal 2 – airport planners are currently considering the options and it might have some aviation related use in the future – has been greeted with a mixture of nostalgia and reluctant acceptance by Phoenix residents.

Indeed, some have taken to social media to extol the virtues of the building, one former local claiming on Twitter that “It is weird that I kinda love Terminals 2 and 3”, while another penned that T2 “reminds me of the Phoenix I grew up in back in the 1960s and 1970s”.

The good news is that Phoenix Sky Harbor recognises the importance of preserving Terminal 2’s most famous and best loved resident – a gigantic mural of a phoenix bird. 

The 16ft high, 65ft long installation created out of paint, broken shells, glass, wood and other materials, was made by local artist Paul Coze in the early 1960s, and because of the sheer number of passengers passing through the terminal each year, one local newspaper called it “easily the most-viewed artwork in the Valley”.

“We recognise how important it is to the community and are evaluating how best to preserve it,” admits Makovsky. 

“We already have an art museum here at the airport and we’ve asked the curator to bring a consultant on board to look at that mural and see how it’s constructed because it’s built into a wall. Right now when we close T2 we’re not tearing it down so the mural will be protected.”

Preserving the old and loved while building for the future, sounds like Phoenix Sky Harbor is in good hands.

PHX Sky Train milestone
April 8, 2014, marked the one-year anniversary of Stage 1 of the PHX Sky Train at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

During the first year of service, the automated people mover (APM) has exceeded ridership expectations, carrying more than 10,000 passengers daily riders between the airport’s busiest terminal, Terminal 4, East Economy Parking, and the Valley Metro Light Rail.

It is also environmentally friendly as the PHX Sky Train campus of stations was a LEED Gold project.

Stage 1A is currently under construction and will extend to Terminal 3, expanding the system to serve all airline passengers. The Stage 1A system will transport passengers from 44th street to Terminal 4 in about five minutes, and to Terminal 3 in about seven minutes. Stage 1A is scheduled to begin passenger service in 2015.

Lea+Elliott is the APM system designer and has led the planning, design, engineering, procurement and implementation of the Stage 1 and Stage 1A systems. The final stage of the PHX Sky Train, Stage 2, will extend the system 2.5 miles to the Rental Car Center.

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