A Quick Guide to Sky Harbor International Airport

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Sky Harbor about to fall under the veil of a monsoon-season haboob. (Wikimedia Commons)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is in a constant state of change. Perpetual construction, evolving security protocols and the addition of a "people mover" to connect to the Metro Light Rail shake things up with every visit. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time here to understand Sky Harbor’s flow. This is my insider guide to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.


It’s a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.

The Layout
Sky Harbor has three terminals numbered two through four. T4 is the biggest, the most modern and also the most generic. The visitor experience varies greatly, with the nicest portions serving Southwest Airlines. T3 is smaller, older -- but possessing a certain kitschy 1980s Arizona charm. Then there’s T2 – which was once super-cool but completely ruined by the TSA’s security effort. It once had an eye-catching, airy entryway. Everything has shrunk to accommodate the security lines. But there’s something very cool about T2 -- more on that soon.

The Players
Despite its name, Sky Harbor is really an overgrown domestic airport. It’s a major hub for Southwest Airlines and US Airways, both of which hog T4. And while US Airways flies to places like Tel Aviv and even Helsinki, it sure doesn’t do it from Phoenix. A daily British Airways flight connects Sky Harbor to London. American Airlines (T3) isn’t a major player here, nor is United (T2). [UPDATE April 2014: The US Airways/American Airlines merger changes this. American Airlines is now at Terminal 4 and becoming more important. The future is still in flux for what the merger means for Sky Harbor’s hub status.]

The Big Secrets
These are my two biggest insider secrets about Phoenix Sky Harbor, and I’ve never seen any other blog mention them.

Boeing 767 Hawaiian Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines – a way to fly international from Phoenix without a stop at LAX. (Photo by Dylan Ashe)

First, try to book flights on airlines serving Terminal 2. What? The oldest terminal? Yes. Because it’s small, the odds of getting lost or missing a flight due to a gate change or long TSA line plummet. You can also walk from the West Economy lot directly to the terminal in moments – the only place st Sky Harbor where that’s possible. Airlines serving T2 include United, Alaska Airlines and Great Lakes Airlines.

My second tip is for international/intercontinental travelers. Phoenicians are generally forced to San Francisco or Los Angeles for intercontinental flights. Both are pretty harried airports, but LAX is definitely worse. If you’re headed west to the International Date Line, you have another option: skipping West Coast connections with Hawaiian Airlines (at T3). It has daily flights to Honolulu, which can then connect you to Japan, Tahiti, the Philippines, Korea and (drum roll, please) Australia. I haven’t flown Hawaiian Airlines – but considering their interactions with followers on Twitter, it seems this is an airline that gets it -- that wants to make air travel fun.

Plethora of Parking
There’s really no shortage of cheap parking at Phoenix Sky Harbor – you have choices between the Economy lots on-site, plus private off-site parking. If you’re into planning ahead and you leave yourself enough time, off-site parking is a solid option. You’ll find it a bit more secure and generally less-crowded. Another bonus: They’re easier to get to. Recent construction has completely changed most of the roads leading into Sky Harbor. I can no longer drive in relying on memory. It’s a roadscape in flux, and you can just leave it to the shuttle driver if you park off the grounds.

US Airways – a big dog at Sky Harbor.

If you want on-site covered parking, you can find it right at the terminals. But be prepared to pay through the nose. The covered parking at the East Economy lot is far more affordable, but you’ll have to catch the shuttle to the terminals. This can be a factor if you’re running late or facing summer heat (the bus stops in the Economy Lot reflect a lot of heat).

Grabbing a Bite
I rarely eat at Sky Harbor. There’s usually time for me to grab a snack at home before showing up for my flight. If I run low on time, though, there are some options beyond the usual fast-food, bland, greasy megacorporation options: Several local restaurants will open at Sky Harbor. The standouts: Cartel Coffee Lab, Press Coffee, Le Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe. I’d like to see Pita Jungle set up shop, too – and not like its mall locations, but with its actual sit-down menu.

Keep this info in mind whenever your flights take you to Sky Harbor. You’ll be in, out, well-fed and less frustrated. You might even have a little fun.

Remembering my T-6 Texan Warbird Flight

I always had fantasies about flying in one of these. Carl’s T-6 brought me a little closer.

I catch the 10 p.m. newscast as it’s about to go to commercial; the anchor teases a story to come in the next segment.

“A vintage airplane crashes in the desert, killing two,” she says.

It could be any vintage plane, any pilot. But I know it’s not. I turn the TV off. Moments later, my phone rings. It’s Alexa, a friend and colleague at The Arizona Republic.

“Justin, there’s been an accident,” she says.

“I know.”

Where Pilots Are Born

It’s an ungainly beast, this T-6 Texan. No enemy fliers feared it. The Japanese didn’t give it an ominous nickname like “Whistling Death.”

But the sunlight and its deep-blue coat of paint make it look just enough like Pappy Boyington’s F4U-4 Corsair to reach the 6-year-old boy I used to be — the boy that refuses to miss an episode of Black Sheep Squadron.

And really, the T-6 Texan made the Corsair – and the P-51 Mustang and sundry other American fighters. Or at least the most important part of those planes: the pilots. Yes, every fighter pilot of the era started here. A few hundred hours in a T-6 Texan, then into planes twice as fast, twice as powerful and heavily armed. Into the fray against the Luftwaffe or the Japanese.

Carl Schmieder is only 6o — too young to have flown in WWII. But he’s a member of Cactus Squadron, an aerobatic outfit flying the T-6 Texan to its limits at airshows. He’s fairly short, fit, genial. But I expected to see him in a vintage flight suit. In his striped button-down shirt and slacks, he looks like a jeweler sneaking out of work. Which he is.

I climb into the cockpit behind him. There’s a plaque bolted to the instrument panel: Intentional straight and level flight prohibited.

The Takeoff Roll

The radial engine harrumphs to life. The vibration reaches me at the cellular level. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. We taxi, wagging around so Carl can see what’s in front of the Texan’s elevated cowling. We gather speed, and we’re in the air.

The next hour or so is the stuff of my dreams. Carl starts slowly, with aileron rolls. It’s the first time I’ve ever been upside-down in an airplane. A laundry list of combat maneuvers follows: Cuban 8, Immelmann turns, steep banks, barrel rolls. Carl explains every maneuver – I hear the still-awestruck young boy in his voice. He’s done this countless times, and the little boy still lives.

I learn what a four-G turn feels like. I grunt and tense every muscle in my lower body – quads, core, arms … all clenching to force enough blood into my head to stay conscious. Still, I feel an invisible electric blanket cranked to "HIGH" settle over me. The edges of my vision distort just slightly. It’s amazing.

Back Down to Earth

We land, and I’m physically wrung out, nauseous, over-heated. Carl slides the canopy, and I drink the air. It smells of exhaust and is barely any cooler – but it’s refreshing as lapping water straight off an Icelandic glacier.

I’m delighted, maybe as much as Carl is. He got to fly — and share the magic of aerobatic flying.

But Carl is gone, along with his final passenger and his priceless, dynamic piece of flying history. The National Transportation and Safety Board report can tell you why. A sad piece of aftermath: The Arizona wing of Cactus Squadron disbanded after the crash.

Maybe we shouldn’t embrace risk. No aerobatics, no mountain climbing, no polar expeditions. It’d save lots of lives.

But it would sure make living a lot less interesting.

(UPDATE: Jan. 2020: My original story for the Arizona Republic is no longer online. I’ll see if I can find it somewhere else or even scan it. It wasn’t great, but I was new at this newspaper thing!)

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When Air Travel Blogs Go Wrong

Too many details are like too much throttle - you wind up in a messy situation. (photo credit unknown - let me know if it's you!)

Attention, air travel bloggers: I don’t care what runway you took off from. The registration number of your aircraft is worthless fluff, less than meaningless. And photos of your food? Please, don’t. Just don’t.

And I love flying! Commercial air travel is a blast. Yet I still can’t fathom what’s remotely interesting about the most banal details of a routine flight.

But you all take it too far. You need to realize something – not every flight is worth a discussion -- or enough photos to fill a 4-MB SD card.

Need an example? Witness this over-the-top display in the One Mile at a Time blog. This post would’ve been just fine with one photo of the terminal, some airplane photos and one shot of the interior. But no – there’s seriously a photo in that post of a used hot towel! Yes, you read that right. I don’t ordinarily hang another blogger out to dry – but some of these frustrate me because they make something I really like seem obsessive, boring and over-privileged. I scrolled through the post looking for the part where it gets interesting.

And really, does gabbing about divestiture not suck all the fun out of the airline industry? Oddly enough, one of the most unabashed (and tightly focused) aviation industry analysis bloggers still manages to be more interesting than this. At least it’s breaking down what makes the industry tick – and conveys some enthusiasm.

There are gobs of air travel blogs out there. Nearly every one has an occasional nugget that’s terrific – though you’ve just seen them sink into the quagmire of insider privilege, industry glossolalia and institutional apologia (I just made that word up -- or so I though until spellcheck didn’t hold up a red card).

Unfortunately, I see very few from the perspective of someone who:

  • flies just every few months.
  • never gets comped.
  • is not an industry insider.
  • knows what flights aren’t worth writing about.
  • is only vaguely aware that first class exists.
  • does not have a trust fund.

That just might be the benefit to sites like travelervoice.com. So far as I’ve seen, it seems to be all real people rather than shills. And every month, it’s getting harder to parse the shills and get to the real travelers.