Sunday, January 29, 2023

American Heathrow: Transferring Terminals at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX)

We made a quick trip to Albuquerque last week, and the optimum itinerary for us was through PHX, transferring there between Alaska and American.

We haven’t flown into PHX in many years, but didn’t give it much thought until we noticed we had to change between Terminal 3 (Alaska) and Terminal 4 (American). Our reliable TripIt told us the transfer between terminals would take us about 45 minutes. We smiled at that “typo,” but it turned out TripIt was right. Fortunately we had a couple of hours between flights both outbound and returning.
The original terminals numbered 1 and 2 were retired and the airport authorities continued to name these terminals 3 and 4 to “avoid confusion.” The airport website offers little in the way of instructions to transfer between terminals.

Terminal 4 is much larger than terminal 3. In 2021 PHX was the 8th busiest airport in the US and the 11th busiest in the world.

The signage is less than adequate in our opinion and on our return trip we even asked one of the airport volunteers to point us in the right direction. 

It was obvious from his practiced reply that he’d explained the route to a lot of passengers. At one point passengers had to take shuttle buses between terminals, but the airport’s Sky Train, an automated system that originally ran to parking lots, was extended to run between terminals nearly 10 years ago. Interestingly, the track stretches to 100 feet (30 meters) above a taxiway so as to clear 747s and A380s.

Once we found the right direction we found it to be several minutes walking to get to the train, several minutes on the train, and then several more minutes of walking. 

We saw two of these signs but never figured out their purpose.

Why, with all of the desert land surrounding Phoenix, there wasn’t airport development that was more convenient for the actual passengers is shrouded in mystery (and perhaps even politics).

There’s one final catch. Transferring terminals requires passengers to go outside security, so it’s necessary to go through a TSA checkpoint again. Fortunately the lines weren’t too crowded.

We’d been hoping to use Brian’s new Alaska Lounge membership to access an American Airlines Admirals Club. However, on the outbound trip by the time we found our gate we realized it would be another 10-minute walk to access the nearest club, and on the return trip we learned there was no OneWorld club of any kind in the smaller Terminal 3. Instead, we shared a table in a crowded restaurant with a very nice couple from Minneapolis, Tom and Debbie, who were on their way back to be introduced to a newborn granddaughter. Talking about grandchildren brightened our somewhat grumpy mood.

To sum up, we would fly this route again if the price were right, and if the current departure and arrival times remain more convenient than Alaska’s SEA-ABQ non-stop flights, but we wouldn’t go out of our way, despite the extra air miles and segments. 

Even in Chicago and Los Angeles we can transfer airside by train (ORD) or walking through connecting tunnels (LAX), so we add PHX to our list of the cumbersome airports to make landside pre-security transfers, along with New York JFK and London Heathrow LHR.

Other than that, it's a modern and attractive airport.

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