Sky Harbor, What were you thinking?

I fly to Phoenix Sky Harbor airport regularly as my employer has a large operation in the area and my mother, as well as several old friends live in Phoenix. Sky Harbor airport is not a great cathedral of aviation.

Like all airports, Sky Harbor is constantly under construction. The master plan calls for terminals two and three to be completely rebuilt, which will include the eventual closure of the original terminal two. It can’t happen soon enough. Terminals two and three are old, ugly, inefficient and have almost no food and beverage options beyond the too-small security checkpoints. The main issue is who and how it will be paid for.

Currently, Sky Harbor is in the multi-phased construction of the Sky Train system. This automated people mover will eventually connect all the terminals to the remote parking lots, the rental car center, and the Phoenix METRO light rail system.

Part of the design I can’t wait to experience is to have the Sky Train tracks travel via a bridge over an active taxiway to get to the terminals. It is an audacious piece of architecture that will provide geeky thrills if you are lucky enough to be on the bridge as an aircraft taxies underneath.

Here’s the problem. According to Wikipedia, the bridge is tall enough to let a Boeing 747 pass under the bridge but not an Airbus A380. The odds of sending an A380 or a 747 to Phoenix are slim right now. The local market can’t sustain it. The largest aircraft that currently makes sense for Phoenix is the Boeing 777-300. It has almost as much capacity as a 747 but is considerably more fuel-efficient. The new Boeing 787 and upcoming Airbus A350 are also logical choices, as they were developed with the idea of connecting smaller markets such as Phoenix to long-haul international destinations.

But who knows what the future will bring? The population of Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County is growing at a very quick pace. USAirways will soon be American Airlines. American works very closely with British Airways through the Oneworld global alliance. American Airlines will inherit a very large hub in Phoenix through the merger. Hubs are meant to create critical mass by connecting many more passengers than the local market could ever support. This is already the case in Phoenix. There is a possibility, however slight, that that BA could potentially send an A380 to Phoenix with many passengers that will connect beyond Phoenix with American Airlines. British Airways is in the process of taking delivery of a fleet of shiny new Airbus A380s.

So the question is why this situation with a brand new infrastructure? It could have been that from an engineering standpoint it was not possible to make the bridge high enough. Did the budget for the Sky Train make it impossible? Were the planners overlooking this detail or did they decide that the odds of an A380 visiting Phoenix are too small?

This does not necessarily mean the A380 can’t fly to Phoenix. It will probably have to take a longer taxi to its gate – that is, assuming the airport is willing to upgrade gates to handle the 500 plus passengers and their luggage.

Regardless of the reasons, I really think the powers that be at Phoenix blundered a bit here. Which doesn’t mean I’m not really excited about the potentiality of riding the Sky Train on my next trip to Phoenix.

Way to go Phoenix Sky Harbor!