I was always a child of the railroads, so Union Station held much more magnetism for me than the airport. Still, in the 1960s, Sky Harbor was a sweet little airport. It had a romantic name. The old blond-brick West Terminal and tiny control tower hearkened back to aviation's infancy — it had only been six decades since the Wright Brothers' first powered flight.
You boarded by stairs — jetways were several years off. The new East Terminal was graced by a dramatic mural of Phoenix's founding myth and flight science above the airy modern waiting room. It also had a second-story observation deck, where one could watch the airplanes, complete with telescopes. Our Cub Scout den was given a tour of the control tower. All this was before hijackings and the rise of the present Security State.
It was a beautiful airport with a certain '50s charm. One reached it from 24th Street along grassy parkways with trees. And back then, the route into downtown was still lined with pleasant motels and "auto courts," all human scale.
Sky Harbor had two runways, which were plenty back then. On the south edge was the Air National Guard midair refueling tanker wing (Richard Nixon gave a campaign speech in the big hangar during the 1972 campaign).
On the north side, beyond the general aviation hangars, were the Southern Pacific tracks, which carried three passenger trains a day in each direction. The best airplane watching was on 40th Street, which was a two-lane affair that dipped into the riverbed and marked the east boundary of the airport. The 727s and 707s came in right overhead.
Airlines were highly regulated. Hubs were far in the future. So regional players such as Bonanza, Hughes AirWest and Western were as important as United, American and Continental. I made my first airplane flight from LA to Phoenix when I was ten (we had gone there on the Sunset Limited, by far the more enchanting journey for me). Flying was special then. People dressed up. Airlines treated you very well. There were no cattle calls or lines from LockUp.
Sky Harbor was an accidental airport. Before the Depression, a number of landing strips were sited around Phoenix. This one, built in 1928 by Scenic Airways, was purchased by the city in 1935 and improved thanks to New Deal money, manpower, and materials. TWA began regular service three years later and for decades was a dominant carrier. For several years in the 1970s, TWA ran 747 service between Phoenix and Chicago. The north side of the airport handled general aviation until the 1990s, when it was shifted to Deer Valley and Goodyear airports to make more space for airlines.
Today, of course, Sky Harbor is a behemoth. On the outside, it's ugly, adds hugely to the heat island and air pollution, is a monster to navigate, and has lost all its former grace. This is hardly a peculiarity to Phoenix — American airports are generally unattractive, as if warning you architecturally of the travel ordeal ahead.
The heat island issues are more pressing for Phoenix, with longer and hotter summers, and when the monsoon storms collide with all that heat being released by this vast concrete monster.
Still, Phoenix goes out of its way to be homely: The Goldwater Terminal (Terminal Four) looks like a massive jail. The old West Terminal was demolished for — what else? — a surface parking lot. Driving on I-10 south of the Salt, you can still find the old control tower. The mural in aging Terminal 2 (the old East Terminal) was profaned in the 1980s by the sign of a restaurant.
On the other hand, Sky Harbor is the friendliest airport I've ever encountered. The inside of Terminal Four, especially, resembles a very nice shopping mall, which is as good as it gets for most Americans. The Sky Train makes it easy to get from light rail (WBIYB) or the east economy garage to the terminals.
Sky Harbor is also Phoenix's last unassailable economic asset that hasn't been poached by the suburbs. For now it remains a hub for American Airlines after the merger with US Airways; that status can't be taken for granted.
It is also Southwest's busiest "station" (the company doesn't like the word hub). On top of that, Alaska and United are major players. I can't think of another major airport with more choices. A "fortress hub" Sky Harbor is not. As of 2016, 1,200 aircraft and 120,000 passengers arrived and departed daily.
All the Williams-Gateway ("Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport") hype is a pipedream. Airlines serve Sky Harbor because it's relatively inexpensive. This is different from, say, LAX, whose costs gave rise to competition. The old idea of an Eloy mega-jetport is dead. In both cases, the costs and trouble of starting up major service would be prohibitive (see Denver International Airport), and both are far from population centers. It certainly won't happen given today's fiscal and economic climate. The major airlines don't want Gateway, as long as the Phoenix keeps costs in line. And the developers helpfully continue to encroach on Gateway and Eloy.
This has come at a cost. Some of the city's most historic barrios were bulldozed to — well, I'm not sure what. The land is now office "parks" or empty. Among the excuses given were safety and noise abatement, but if you've ever flown into LAX, San Diego, Boston or many other airports with runways adjacent to neighborhoods, this smells.
The barrios simply lacked the political power to push back. The cultural and historic loss was immense. Their demise, in turn, destabilized Maryvale. I'd love to know who got rich off this con.
In addition, Sky Harbor has its own revenue stream, benefits from the hidden federal subsidies for air travel and operates largely disconnected from city government. It deserves its own experienced beat reporter, not just covering airlines but the airport's inner workings, conflicts of interest, environmental issues, etc.
Harry Mitchell, as Tempe mayor and Sky Harbor nemesis, used to warn that the airport coveted everything north to McDowell and east to Seventh Street.
Meanwhile the city aviation department also operates the Deer Valley and Goodyear airports, the former a large general aviation site, and the latter, where the old Naval Air Station once stood, would make a great logistics center.
The gigantic offsite rental car building is another curiosity — another reason the airport needs more scrutiny. The rental hub is bigger than many airport terminals in medium-sized cities. I guess the bigs at City Hall were trying to get ahead of "growth" — both the old East Terminal and Terminal Three were overwhelmed years before their projected capacity.
Such thinking now fails to account for the discontinuity that is already upon us with Arizona's ongoing Depression. I suppose if things don't work out, an apron can be extended to the rental-car building, repurposed as the only terminal.
At least a proposal to take away the distinct name in favor of "Phoenix International Airport" was turned back years ago, and most people still call it by its historic title.
Sky Harbor gallery:
Taking off toward the west in the 1930s, there's plenty of space between the airport and the city. On the right is the Southern Pacific main line, lined by shade trees, and the SP yard at 16th. Street.
An American Airlines pilot outside the Sky Club in the 1940s. McCulloch Bros./ASU Archives
A new terminal was under construction in 1952. It eventually became known as the West Terminal or today's missing Terminal 1.
Here's a view from the 1960s, with the East Terminal in the foreground and the new West Terminal (Terminal 2 today) in the upper left. On the left is the Arizona Air National Guard base, which remains and operates tanker planes.
An overhead view of the two existing terminals in 1978. To the right, construction is under way on Terminal 3 and a new (now gone) tower. Sky Harbor had only two runways. By the 2000s, when the third runway opened, it was the largest airport in America with only two (San Diego's Lindbergh Field still has only one).
An artist's rendering of the facelift and expansion being given to Terminal 3. Note the Sky Train in the background. The green, inviting exterior of the old airport is long gone.
Just rolled in from the Midwest and think there's no history here? Break the glass and click on your emergency dose of Phoenix 101.