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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.

3 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Sky Harbor International Airport

  1. girl from arizona

    Another informative post Justin. A couple points.

    First – a sponsor? Awesome! I am now inspired to find a beer sponsor for one of my posts.

    Second – I used to like T2 when I was making more trips to the NW but I think the security lines make it a big cluster now. I’d warn people – stay out of the middle line – that’s the one that feeds you through the Xray machine and it moves slooooow.

    Third – We’ve got good local coffee at T4, now let’s get some more local brews.

  2. Nichole L. Reber

    You know you make me want to take note of each thing you say about airports and planes. Goodness knows I’m going to pass through one you’ve mentioned. You offer the a veteran’s perspective that makes the reader feel prepared for whatever airport comes their way– even Germany’s Frankfurt airport, my worst experience thus far. Although admittedly sitting on the tarmac each time you use Shenzhen International airport in China isn’t exactly entertaining either.
    I love your posts. They make me want to take notes, or at least bookmark them in Mozilla, so that I’m prepared for my next flight!

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