A Day Trip to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)


There I was, in Phoenix, Arizona on a pleasant Saturday in March with no airshow to attend. I had not planned on doing any spotting at Phoenix Sky Harbor during my trip but the Covid-19 Pandemic had caused states to cancel all public gathering events, including the airshows. As the weather was airshow-perfect with sunshine and high temperatures in the mid 70s, PHX plane spotting became the order of the day. Although many stories have been done on PHX through the years, it seems like a good time to write another story.

I do like to visit other airports as I am an airport guy, myself. I consulted an online spotting guide and found a spot along a bicycle trail that overlooked the south side of the airport across the Salt River. This is not a large flowing river but actually a rain outfall for the area, of which there was a lot this week, causing many municipal issues. After seeing a few Coyotes roaming around, I would never be tempted to explore down there. It is also a natural barricade in addition to the fencing of the airport.

In addition to a number of online guides, the airport website also has a section for spotter information and encourages the hobby of photography. What’s not to like about “The World’s Friendliest Airport”? I have passed through a few times over the years and cannot recall any problems except for going down the wrong concourse and walking a long way back to my departure gate. They are doing a lot of things right.

Flight operations were to the East on Runways 7R, 7L and 8, which is on the far side of the terminals. The sun started behind and to the right in the morning and eventually crossed the west end of the runway in the evening. Flight operations were busy at the 13th busiest airport in the United States. PHX served over 44 Million passengers in 2019.

A brief history of PHX begins in 1928 when a runway was built and it was named Sky Harbor Airport. Standard Air Lines was the most stable user and had routes between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and El Paso. American Airways (now American Airlines) bought Standard in 1930 and extended the routes to the East Coast. The City of Phoenix took ownership of the airport in 1935. After World War II, PHX had its’ first expansion adding a new terminal and two runways, a parallel 08/26 and a crosswind 03/21. Today, that Terminal has been replaced and relocated and the crosswind runway is gone. Major carriers we recognize that began service here were TWA in 1938, Frontier in 1950, Western Airlines in 1957, Continental Airlines in 1961, Air West/Hughes Air West in 1968, Delta Airlines in 1969, Republic and United Airlines in 1980, and Southwest in 1982. In 1983, post-deregulation upstart, America West Airlines made Phoenix its’ hub. America West merged with US Airways in the early 2000s and then American Airlines in 2015, assuming the identity of the larger airlines. Today’s American Airlines Hub Status is in the lineage of America West.

PHX has two terminals but they are numbered 3 and 4. Terminal 1 was torn down in 1991 and Terminal 2 was vacated only a few weeks prior to my visit. It will be torn down within the year. The two remaining modern Terminals have over 100 gates and no efforts were deemed necessary to renumber them. The smaller Terminal 3 is named for Senator John S. McCain III and Terminal 4 is named for Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Parking garages are attached to each terminal and a “Sky Train” transports many passengers between the terminals, the East Economy parking lot and the Valley Metro Rail Station. Ultimately, Sky Train will extend west to other lots and the Rental Car Facility. Bus routes are in place currently for the west side. Terminals are also accessible from either direction of ground travel. Rather than an airport loop, the roads run through the airport from East and West.

Phoenix Tower is located near Terminal 3 and stands over 300 feet tall. From my vantage point on the bicycle trail, it played prominently in the takeoff photographs.

American is the number one airline here with Southwest a close second but many major carriers fly here. The fleet mix was interesting and I was thrilled to see a number of 757s operated by Delta and American departing, as they have become a rare sight on the East Coast. There is also an Arizona Air National Guard Base on the south side where the 161st Air Refueling Wing resides and flies the KC-135. A Marine Corps C-130 was a pleasant surprise lifting off on the near runway. There are also a number of fixed base operators on the west end of the field.

At lunch time, I stopped at a spot in the arrival corridor catching a Delta Airbus 330 flying domestically and an Omni Air International 767 inbound. Westjet also passed by. Much like my airport, the biggest international operator is British Airways with seasonal service from Condor routing direct to Europe. Seats to Europe are limited and could require a transfer leg through another airport.

After lunch, I parked in the Terminal 3 Garage to look down on the ramps and the North and South crossover taxiways (Taxiways S and T). The roadways run underneath these taxiways and the garage offers a neat perspective on this intersection of air and ground transportation.

After dinner, I returned to the original spot on the bicycle trail. By this time, the sun had moved almost over the runway and the operation changed to the west, landing on Runways 25L, 25R and 26. From there I was also able to catch some evening departures over the City of Phoenix to complete a satisfying day spent at the airport.


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