The Phoenix airport is spending $1.7 billion on improvements. Here's what's coming

Michael Salerno
Arizona Republic

People who fly through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in the next several years will notice an ongoing metamorphosis.

The airport is working on $1.74 billion worth of upgrades over the next five years as part of its comprehensive asset management plan, which the Phoenix City Council approved in 2019.

One key project is nearly finished: Stage 2 of the PHX Sky Train, a $745 million  extension that will connect Terminals 3 and 4 to the Rental Car Center. Right now, getting to the Rental Car Center from the terminals requires riding a shuttle bus.

Other upgrades are in various stages of progress. Most recently, Sky Harbor received a federal funding commitment from the infrastructure law to build a taxiway connecting the north and south airfields. Airport officials say this will reduce the time flyers spend waiting to take off and exit a plane after landing.

Other enhancements in the airport's long-range vision, like a new concourse in Terminal 3, a pedestrian bridge connecting Terminals 3 and 4 and an on-site hotel in Terminal 4, are in planning and development.

Sky Harbor's aviation services director Chad Makovsky and chief development officer of aviation Jay DeWitt spoke to The Arizona Republic about airport improvement projects and their impact on travelers.

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How will the Sky Train-Rental Car Center link benefit travelers?

Jay DeWitt: It will be the equivalent of three rental car buses every three minutes, which is remarkable and will move a lot of people. This project has been 15 years in the making. I came to the airport to kick off Stage 1 (of the Sky Train project) and 15 years and $1.6 billion later, we are finished. The infrastructure is all there. They are in the process of testing.

Chad Makovsky: It was built with the future in mind. Today if you were to ride the Sky Train, we have a two-car concept, you hop on, two bays, two cars that will take you in either direction. When we activate this second phase now going to the Rental Car Center, we're going to go up to three cars. We could theoretically actually add a fourth car if we wanted to in the future, to meet growing demand.

And then it also creates a unique opportunity for us because if you think about it, we have the 44th Street Station which is connected on the northeast side of where the light rail is. We have this new West 24th Street Station (which is expected to open this year as part of the connection to the Rental Car Center) so we created two new front doors to the airport. So, if we ever have a challenge with congestion on Sky Harbor Boulevard, people can actually access our airport by stopping here on 44th Street.

And then we could actually even start talking about how we divest traffic off of our curbs to the stations if we needed to at some point in the future. It creates a lot of flexibility for us as we grow to support our customers.

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When will the Sky Train extension open?

DeWitt: They’ve been working nights and days, weeks, weekends, holidays. They are confident that they're going to get this done well before the end of the year.

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How will the new taxiway benefit flyers?

Dewitt: The taxiway goes from the north airfield to south airfield on the west side, saving passengers time (by reducing taxi times associated with a plane's takeoff and landing). It's a $300 million project; $200 million of that will be paid for with grants we're getting from the (federal infrastructure) bill. They're coming in $40 million increments in the next five years. We're looking at passenger facility charges and a little bit of cash to make up the difference.

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What might a new north concourse at Terminal 3 look like?

DeWitt: We just built eight gates (in Terminal 4's eighth concourse) and the airlines are already asking for more. So, the new Terminal 3 concourse is the first thing out of the gate.

We’re looking at about six gates and maybe more. We’re in the late programming stage of this right now. We have not selected a contractor or designer yet. That procurement will hit the streets at the end of this month, possibly the first of November.

The new Terminal 3 (concourse) gates will be common use gates, so they won't be assigned to any particular airline.

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What about the pedestrian bridge between Terminals 3 and 4?

Makovsky: We're all about flexibility. There's going to come a time when American Airlines (in Terminal 4), maybe through regular operations or other reasons, may not have enough gates for the planes that are on the ground.

We have space at Terminal 3, they can park a plane at Terminal 3, they'd be able to efficiently connect to Terminal 4 as opposed to right now, where it'd be very difficult to do something like that. It just creates a lot of options for us for our airlines to do business.

DeWitt: This is about a $500 million project between the (pedestrian bridge) and the concourse, and of course these are all approximate costs at this point. We're probably looking at 2025-26 where this project would be nearing completion.

Say you've got a connecting flight on American (Airlines) and you've got to get over to Alaska (Airlines) to get where you're going. This would be a connecting bridge that you take instead of going back through security and then have to come back across to get to Terminal 3. 

What about the hotel planned for Sky Harbor?

DeWitt: It would be in Terminal 4, of course, our busiest and largest terminal. It will be privately developed, privately operated and maintained. This is an exciting project that we've got a space for. There's demand for it amongst these travelers. What we're proposing is a request for proposals for a private developer that would come to develop this thing. We’re looking at getting this out sometime next year, probably early summer.

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How has the airport's plan evolved with the pandemic?

Makovsky: The pandemic has really been an interesting time for us, right? We went from our busiest year ever in 2019 to losing 95% of our traffic within a month. I wasn't here when that all started, I was at (Dallas Fort Worth) and they experienced the exact same thing over there.

It was a really trying time for the industry because in modern times, we had never gone through something quite like this and so we didn't know how long it was going to last.

It's important to know that we are an enterprise fund department of the city of Phoenix, which means we make our own money. We spend it. No local tax dollars go into this unless you're paying for a ticket to get on a flight. We sort of sink or swim alone if you think about it from our budget.

And the good news about our industry though is it’s a very resilient industry, people have an inherent desire to connect with one another to explore the world. Especially in Arizona, people love coming here. We rebounded relatively quickly.

DeWitt: I think (the pandemic) opened our eyes to what the worst case could really be.

I think we'd also have to recognize the role of federal government in acknowledging and recognizing airports as critical infrastructure. If not for those grants, we wouldn't be talking about capital projects today.

We would have survived, we would have got through, but it would have been a really long time — we projected about 2030 — before we’d be able to build anything other than what we needed to keep the place running.

Reach the reporter at Follow him on Twitter @salerno_phx.

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