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.

Rogue Columnist, German Tourists, Direct Flights and Jan’s Junket

More intercontinental flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor would be nice, but they're not the only way Germans come to Arizona. (Darren Koch via Wikimedia Commons)

Rogue Columnist, one of my favorite bloggers, has a post about Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s junket to Germany. Local media have only been able to get a partial list of the manifest for Jan’s Germany Junketsm, and she has not disclosed a budget for the two-week trip.

As usual, Jon Talton (the Rogue’s real name) accurately skewers the silliness and waste. But he misses his mark on the impact of German tourists on Arizona:

"As for tourism — forget it. Germans who want American sun go to Miami. Unless the state could lure or underwrite direct flights to Germany and France, it will never be a big player in this field."

I pointed out to him, as a first-generation German-American, that German loves Arizona. They love Old West kitsch, Cruise America camper vans, the Grand Canyon.

Jon concedes that Germans do love the Old West, but stays put on his assumptions that no direct flights from Germany equals little tourism.

Not so.

Germans don’t travel like Americans. They don’t don’t come only to visit Arizona. Lufthansa had a daily flight here at one point – but a single daily flight means you only have one departure and arrival time, versus multiple departures and arrivals at other intercontinental hubs like Los Angeles or New York. And Germans want to see a big slice of the country using their much heftier slice of vacation time. So why take a direct flight into an overgrown regional airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor when they could hit an intercontinental hub city and then drive into Arizona?

And German tourists love driving. If you see a Cruise America camper, I’d bet there’s a 1 in 5 chance there’s a German at the wheel.

The direct flights just don’t matter as much as Jon thinks. Germans come to Arizona. They spend money. They enjoy themselves. The direct flights are a separate issue – I think they’d benefit Arizona travelers more than visitors from Germany.

Around the World in 48 Hours – Flying Standby

The World Race starts and ends right here in Phoenix.

Marc Jorgensen and a group of four friends from the Phoenix area will soon fly around the world in 48 hours, all on standby.

Yes, some people might call this hell. But Marc and his crew are calling it the 2011 World Race. And to any airplane geek, it’s a plan sure to provoke some envy. Marc and his buddies (all self-described "airline analyst nerds") will fly different directions, departing on Feb. 25. They’re also adding scavenger hunt elements such as snapping a photo of the cutest flight attendant and the greatest, biggest, bushiest beard – which may or may not be on a flight attendant.

Marc, who works for US Airways, gave me the scoop on his grand plans below. If you are intrigued as I am, the group has a 2011 World Race Facebook page and a Twitter account. Like, ‘em, follow ‘em, cheer ‘em on! In the meantime, enjoy Marc’s answers!

1. What do you do for US Airways?

I am an analyst in Revenue Management. I work with yield management which is primarily adjusting the fare levels to maximize revenue on each flight.

2. There are lots of people who don’t like air travel. How do you explain this trip to people who just don’t understand the appeal?

We will be using some airlines with fantastic inflight entertainment. Flying is a luxury for many people in the world (especially the past couple of years) and getting to circle the globe in just 48 hours is something very few people have ever done. It’s a unique opportunity and meeting new people on a plane and seeing new places can be so fascinating.

If you look like a member of ZZ Top, Marc and his friends might be snapping a photo of you. (Photo by Alberto Cabello)

3. What’s the longest flight you’ve done to date?

The longest flight is LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (which has the best inflight TV and movie options for coach of any airline, in my opinion). It was about 15 hours, the staff were so nice and the movie selection so large it didn’t feel half that long …

4. What are the logistics? Are you flying standby? How planned is each stage?

All flights must be flown as standby. Each team will research out the possible routes, looking at connection times and backups (fly into ORD instead of JFK from FRA etc.)
Also, rock-paper-scissor will determine which direction each team has to go, day of departure … which should add an element of chance and excitement.

5. What are your top methods of staying sane on this misadventure?

The scavenger hunt ideas like finding the person with biggest beard should make it fun along the way. Also having good entertainment and food options on the flight (Korean airlines, Lufthansa) along with adrenaline should carry us through 48 hours.

6. Are you flying any unfamiliar airlines? (I know I’d love to fly Aeroflot!)

It’s a possibility. However the fastest way to circle the globe in this manner involves hitting the key hubs where the big carriers fly (British Airways, Lufthansa, Korean Airlines, All Nippon Airlines) since it fastest to stay far in the northern hemisphere.  However, it is possible we could use El Etihad or Qatar Airlines if circumstances make it the better option.

Aeroloft does have a Moscow to JFK flight that could work …

7. What’s your biggest challenge or fear about being able to pull this off?

Getting stranded in an airport for several days due to weather lockdown.

8. I understand you’re doing this with/against some other people, each flying different directions. What’s the prize for being the first one back?

Initially, we were going to have the losing team pickup the tab for the standby passes (about $300). However, we feel it’s better to have the losing team pick up the tab for dinner for the winning team, and focus more on small prizes for each scavenging hunt item found (ie, picture with the cutest flight attendant).

9. What’s your route/plan look like so far?

Right now. it looks like PHX-LAX, LAX-ICN, ICN-FRA, FRA-JFK, JFK-PHX. (Wandering Justin’s note – for those not so versed in airport codes, that’s Phoenix, Los Angeles, Incheon, Frankfurt, John F. Kennedy).

The reverse route is PHX-LHR, LHR-ICN, ICN-LAX, LAX-PHX. (WJ here again – that would by Phoenix, London Heathrow, Inche – aw, heck, you know the others by now).

10. Are you a bit of an airplane geek? What’s your favorite plane to fly in?

I am a bit one, and the other flyers are as well. I like the Airbus A321 and the A330.  Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to fly the 800-passengers jumbos yet, but I hear they are fantastic to fly in.

11. What else are you doing to prepare?

Exercising, looking at schedules. Make sure I have a currency exchange and language apps on my iPhone.

12. What surprises have you found so far in your planning? Anything about visas, vaccinations or unstable governments?!

That is another issue, because some places require visas. And to maximize time, we need to get through each airport fast, which means getting through each security checkpoint quickly. As you can imagine, if they start asking questions about where we came from and how long we will be there … things could get a bit delayed.

13. What’s your favorite destination? (not related so much to the upcoming mayhem … just a way to gauge what sort of travel character you are).

I really like Asia. As an American, Korea or China are very interesting experiences because the language and culture is so different, and the food is so good! I really like Seoul and Nanjing. I also really enjoy Brazil to relax. To have fun, I wish I was able to spend more time in Berlin and Copenhagen.

Airport Needs to Cut Specialty Lines, Improve Signs

Southwest Airlines, 737-700
All I want is a clear path through security and a seat on my flight with as little fuss as possible.

During a recent flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I had a reminder that the security screening processes are concocted by people who are disconnected from reality.

It was actually a fairly light morning at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4 as I was headed toward the checkpoint. I made sure I didn’t accidentally slip into the first class line and made my way to the agent. Her first words?

“Next time, make sure you don’t use the medical and family line.”

I told her I didn’t notice the sign.

“It’s there,” she said rather shortly.

I looked back again. All I remember is NOT seeing a sign for the first class line. But I also know that arguing with a surly TSA agent is not the way to get to a gate on time.

What I did was file the tidbit away for further reflection. And here are my conclusions:

1. There are too many specific lines that are too underused. There was not a single body in the first class line. There was not a single body in the alleged “medical and family” line. If nobody is there, why bother with them? It seems like a lot of effort for a tiny portion of the passengers. And why should TSA cater to airline customers? It’s not like you get frequent flier mileage for passing through TSA checkpoints.

2. When I’m headed toward a security checkpoint, I am driven for efficiency. That’s so I don’t hold up the line and consequently other people (who might be later getting to the airport than I usually am). I have my boarding pass and driver’s license in hand. Even though I thinks it’s a ridiculous mockery of true security, I’m unlacing my shoes to take them off already. I’m ready to clear the items in my pockets.

That’s where I focus my attention. If the airport has a bunch of lines for first class customers, medical and family, people with gluten allergies, passengers who prefer pot-bellied pigs to dogs and customers who drive hybrid cars … make clear, concise signs in large typeface. I am too busy trying to pass my way through the intestinal tract that is a TSA security line to notice tiny, poorly written signs. Make them big and make them concise, or don’t bother.

Better yet, test the signs out using real-world travelers – a nice mix of leisure and business fliers. If you have suits making these decision, they won’t be under the stress of getting to a gate on-time or the prospect of holding up a bunch of their fellow fliers.

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.