International Service at Sky Harbor: What’s Next?

I’ve said for years that there’s not enough international service at Sky Harbor in Phoenix. The city’s only intercontinental route in recent years was a British Airways flight to London. Then we had a nice sign of progress when Condor Airlines re-connected Phoenix to Germany.

Condor Airlines international service at Sky Harbor, D-ABUA, Boeing 767-330 ER (20164426748)
Condor Airlines re-made the link from Phoenix to Frankfurt last year – and it seems to be a great success.
And British Airways added three more flights to London each week. Then American Airlines announced it would start seasonal service to London in 2019. Oh, and Condor increased its seasonal service! This is all good news, and less gloomy than I anticipated when US Airways merged with American Airlines; the proximity of the Los Angeles hub caused worries that Phoenix would be de-hubbed. Really, that’s a legitimate concern.

Still, international service at Sky Harbor is heading in the right direction. The increase in service brings up a few questions:

    • Fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 were supposed to break the hub-and-spoke model. The Dreamliner can connect cities on "long, thin routes." That situation seems to fit Phoenix, but we don’t have any scheduled service from the 787 or its Airbus counterpart, the A350. Are we then stuck with the hub-and-spoke model?
    • Airline wonks insist that Phoenix needs more big businesses headquartered here to make links with major cities abroad worthwhile. That’s true; tourism just can’t make a route succeed on its own. How will that drive intercontinental service at Sky Harbor?
Vietnam Airlines, international service at Sky Harbor Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, VN-A861
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was supposed to break the hub-and-spoke system. (In Ron Howard’s voice) It hasn’t. But could it connect Phoenix to Asia nonstop for the first time with Vietnam Airlines?
  • Is Phoenix Sky Harbor on the radar of upstarts like Norwegian Air Shuttle? I know they’ve ditched some of their routes to the U.S. lately, but those were 737 routes from Europe to the Northeastern U.S. And there might be more new airlines out there looking for a place to stick their foot in the door.  
  • What about Asia? Clearly, Europe works for Phoenix Sky Harbor. I haven’t seen any breakdown about what drives that success: leisure or business. If it’s leisure, are Germany and England just in our leisure travelers’ comfort zone? Is there data that suggest Asia wouldn’t work? Some might say we’re too close to Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and maybe even San Diego and San Jose. But think of this: Weather delays in Arizona are rare, and many travelers would love to avoid LAX and SFO if they could. Those could be major selling points for international service at Sky Harbor. Just as a crazy idea, I’d lobby Vietnam Airlines hard. They’ll soon begin flights to the U.S., and I haven’t seen any final decisions on destinations in the U.S. What could we offer? 
  • There’s a good amount of renovation happening at Sky Harbor. How much of it involves preparing the airport for future intercontinental flights? What’s the airport’s current capacity to connect with destinations abroad?

British Airways added three 747’s worth of flights to London. Then there’s American Airlines jumping into the route with a 777. Condor added flights. Something is working. I’d love to know what’s behind their decisions, and how that can result in more international service at Sky Harbor.

Flights from Phoenix to London – Beyond British Airways

Flights from Phoenix to London
The daily British Airways flights from Phoenix to London seem an obvious choice. But are they really the best option?

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, my home airport, the lone intercontinental flight is the British Airway 747 to London Heathrow. So that’s my obvious choice to London, right?

Well, not exactly.

Few people love British Airways. And it always seems this flight is priced higher than other routes to London. It’s a nonstop flight, which means a lower chance of delays or lost luggage.

Still, I’d rather pick one of two other flights from Phoenix to London, even if they involve a stop at Los Angeles International Airport.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is planning to add two weekly flights from LAX to London Gatwick (an alternative to Heathrow). Part of the attraction here is being very curious about what it’s like to fly Norwegian Air Shuttle on a long-haul flight. I really liked Norwegian when Sarah and I hopped among Sweden, Norway and Finland. And since Norwegian Air Shuttle will fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’m extra-curious. Reviews of its long-haul flights are mixed. That said, I think a good chunk of the traveling public looks for excuses to complain. My short flights were uniformly on-time, and the crews and ground staff members were all courteous and accommodating. I think this would be a good alternative to British Airways for flights from Phoenix to London, stop or not. It would likely be my first choice just for the curiosity factor.

And then there’s Air New Zealand. A short hop to LAX turns this into a great option for flights from Phoenix to London. I prefer the shiny new Boeing 777 Air New Zealand flies to the British Airways 747. The 777 just has a modern feel that you won’t see on many 747s. I’ve only flown two short legs on Air New Zealand, but those who have flown it on intercontinental flights have good things to say. Blogger Ben has high praise particularly for the LAX to London flight. Let’s see if you can find anyone to crow that much about the British Airways flights from Phoenix to London.

So if you’re OK with an extra stop, you might save some money and get far better flights to London. And there are plenty of other options on good airlines. Just spend some time looking around. Still, these two would be my top choices.

I also have plenty of other airline reviews and thoughts. See some of them here.

  • Norwegian Air to offer U.S. to London flights for $240
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Sky Harbor Responds to “International Flight” Criticism

Welcome to Sky Harbor – small planes, small goals.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport isn’t happy with a WanderingJustin.com post that hints that its staff lags in securing intercontinental routes and airlines.The recent “addition” of another British Airways flight didn’t impress me. More accurately, this will bring Phoenix back to seven flights a week from the current six; (seven years ago, the British Airways flight went from daily to six days a week, a fact The Arizona Republic skipped in its rush to cheerfully ralph up the city press release).

So, there’s little net gain. Sky Harbor is just back where it was seven years ago. Contrast that to Denver International Airport, which just made hay by snagging seasonal direct service to Iceland. Nice score for an outdoorsy metro area! It puts this snippy, defensive reply to my post from unnamed Sky Harbor personnel into perspective:

We have seen your blog in response to the added British Airways flight. Your disappointment in the number of international flights is concerning. Please be advised that airports compete heavily for air service and airlines make business decisions about where to fly based on the estimated profitability of the flight. This begins with the number of passengers that will fly daily in full-fare first and business class seats, followed by the number of additional passengers in full-fare and discount economy seats. Under the direction of the Mayor, Council and City Manager, the Aviation Department actively evaluates this local market and presents competitive information to airlines to encourage them to consider Phoenix. If you have research about the areas you mention in your blog such as Asia and Europe and evidence of 150-200+ people per day in the Valley who would buy seats on these flights, please share it with us. We would appreciate any such information that would assist the airlines in making what amounts to a multi-million dollar investment in our market and more international flights for the Valley. 
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
 

Customer Service
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

So, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport wants me to do its job. It wants me to do what its staff can’t –  compete with competition like Denver International Airport. Sounds to me like Denver and its staff researched areas where 150-200+ people might make it worthwhile for an airline to make a multi-million-dollar investment in their market for international flights. Denver displayed the initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport crew lacks. The score? Denver International Airport – 4 new Icelandair flights, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – 1 “sort-of-new” British Airways flight.

My response:

Dear Customer Service,

Thanks for your response. I would be happy to help Sky Harbor in its mission to add intercontinental routes and carriers. We can approach it two ways: A per-hour consulting fee of $150, or a retainer for up to 20 hours of research per month. You could also arrange a panel of local travelers representing leisure and business segments to determine what routes are worth your thought. Finally, you could poll Sky Harbor travelers with questions related to their thoughts on intercontinental routes – a sample of about 3,000 is enough to be statistically relevant. 
 
Or, and I’m just spitballing here, you can encourage the people already on the city’s payroll to display initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
 
Here’s a bit of free advice: Study the number of Phoenix travelers who have to fly to Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International, Newark, John F. Kennedy and Houston Intercontinental to transfer to flights abroad. Determine the top destinations. Court those airlines and routes heavily. Just off the top of my head, I know that United Airlines – possibly as a punitive punishment over a squabble for international flights – cancelled the soon-to-be-implemented 787 service from Houston to Auckland (word is it was an excuse to put the 787 on a route to Japan instead, while also sticking it to the Houston City Council). Now, if I were a Sky Harbor employee tasked with attracting new routes, I’d look into pitching 787 service from Phoenix to Auckland starting at four flights a week. Such a flight would pull passengers from the Qantas and Air New Zealand flights from LAX and possibly SFO. Name a passenger who loves flying from LAX … oh, that’s right: Nobody likes flying from LAX. Other aspects to consider: New Zealand is an English-speaking country that makes a convenient travel experience for American travelers. And the U.S. dollar is strong next to the Kiwi dollar. Plus filling up a 787 on this route wouldn’t be as difficult as a 777 or 747, which is the 787’s mission – long, thin routes. 
 
Here’s something else I’d add – consider what Phoenix Sky Harbor could offer travelers seeking intercontinental routes. Phoenix Sky Harbor has a compact footprint, and it will be even easier to navigate with the opening of the rail system that will connect each terminal. That will make a connecting experience far better than the mad scrambles of airports like LAX. That means quicker, easier connections and less stress. Sell that hard.
 
I will be out of the country starting next week until mid July. Feel free to contact me to further discuss a consulting arrangement. 

I’m curious: Why does Sky Harbor care what one blogger thinks about international flights? Why acknowledge me at all instead of crowing about the “new” British Airways flight?

I know attracting new routes and airlines isn’t easy. They don’t appear overnight with the wave of a magic travel wand. But … nothing new in seven years? Is this really the best Phoenix can do?

British Airways Adds Extra Flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor

Sky Harbor needs more than a daily flight from London to make Arizona a major air travel player.

British Airways will increase the number of flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to London Heathrow Airport from six a week to daily.

Phoenix city officials are aflutter about the extra flight, which starts Dec. 5.

“Intercontinental flights are huge contributors to the success of our Phoenix airport system, our city’s economy and our region’s overall economic future,” says Mayor Greg Stanton in a press release. The same release claims that British Airways flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor put $100 million into the local economy.

Even if we take that figure at face value (and I’m skeptical), let’s curb our enthusiasm: The mayor’s overstatement of economic impact belies typical Phoenix thinking – measuring success against its own past rather than against cities of similar size.

If I were the mayor, this would be my quote.

“This is a minuscule step in the right direction. The Valley of the Sun is far too populous an area to be served by only one airline that connects us to but one intercontinental destination. It’s an embarrassment that residents need to stop in other cities to reach international centers for business and leisure travel. Phoenix Sky Harbor must connect to the world – for commerce and for tourism – if we are to grow beyond being the nation’s largest small town.”

The press release includes a quote from David Cavazos, city manager: “My goal is to continue to gain additional international routes, while ensuring that this British Airways flight remains successful.”

I hope that’s in his annual review with measurable expectations of success. In my time here, Phoenix Sky Harbor has done a pitiful job of being “international” in anything more than name (remember the Lufthansa service to Frankfurt? R.I.P.). Of course, Cavazos says “international,” which could mean more routes in North and Central America. Big deal.

This extra British Airways flight is nice. But those charged with pursuing new routes and airlines should be cautious about patting themselves on the back before Phoenix Sky Harbor connects non-stop – at a minimum! – to Asia, Oceania and continental Europe.

A Tip of the Hat to the Boeing 747

A preface from Wandering Justin: I originally wrote this for another blog, but it seems relevant here. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Boeing
Photo courtesy of Boeing

Every time I go to band practice, I take the 143 freeway past Sky Harbor. I always look to my right and see a British Airways 747 parked at Terminal 4, getting ready to head to London.

And I wish I was getting on that plane. Not so much because it’s going to London, but because … well, I can’t explain it in one sentence. But here are the thoughts that jumble through my head:

-First, there is a certain something special and exciting about a 747. It’s an icon of style, adventure and anticipation. You don’t take a 747 from Charlotte to Pittsburgh. No, That’s what takes you to Hong Kong, to Paris, to Sydney, to Johannesburg. From the first time I rode one on the way to Germany as a 5-year-old boy, it has made me feel something no other airplane can replicate. The 777 is a marvelous piece of technology, and the A380 is built on a mind-boggling scale. But no aircraft save the Concorde cuts the same image on final approach, or puts that flutter in my stomach as I cross from the jetway into its fuselage. Sadly, less than a handful of American-based airlines still fly it.

-Second, it being a British Airways flight, I know that the people aboard will not be treated like cattle. Foreign airlines seem to have figured out how not to nickel-and-dime passengers to death, and understand that a good experience aloft will endear them to American passengers. I’ve only flown Qantas and JetStar recently. But people whose opinions I respect tell me Air New Zealand, British Airways and Air France are on their game. And I’ve heard Emirates and Virgin are dialed in, too.

-Third, I just love flying. The longer the flight, the happier I am. But put me in a seat with a few hundred people on the way to someplace that requires a widebody jet, and all is right with my world. Is it as comfortable as my reading chair? No. Is the food all that good? No. But I can afford to buy a seat and travel 7,000 or more miles and get off that plane in what feels like a different world. If you can’t get fired up about that, I seriously don’t know what the hell is the matter with you.

-Fourth, I love airports. Sure, the TSA seems like it’s deliberately trying to drive me crazy. There are throngs of people, completely bovine in their lack of situational awareness and clueless meandering. But outside, it’s a well-choreographed display of efficient motion. And there’s something electric in the air at a major international airport (as opposed to my local Sky Harbor, which hosts all of one flight from the U.K., and then a bunch from Canada and Mexico and another from Costa Rica. Hell, that’s barely enough to qualify.). All these people from around the world, all these aircraft that have been who-knows-where. It invigorates me, and gets me excited about everything going on in the world at every given moment.

For me, the inconveniences and discomforts become so petty and so worth enduring when I wake up in another city that my grandparents never could’ve imagined visiting in their lifetime.