Sky Harbor Airport's $5.7 billion, 20-year plan: Double the capacity, add 'bus gates'
The Phoenix City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a 20-year blueprint for improvements to Sky Harbor International Airport, designed to make sure the airport can keep up with passenger and cargo demands that are expected to double by 2039.
The blueprint addresses a Federal Aviation Administration requirement, which makes airports maintain short- and long-term plans for their facilities. Sky Harbor currently serves almost 45 million passengers a year. Staff members project that in the next 20 years, it will need the capacity for 75 million to 80 million passengers and double the amount of cargo capability.
Sky Harbor's last long-range plan was in 2010, and the FAA requires these plans to be updated every seven to 10 years. Since 2017, airport staff worked with more than 150 stakeholder groups.
"Our airport is near capacity," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said. "Every month we've been hitting records for the number of people traveling through Sky Harbor. We want to invest ahead of demand so we can continue to provide the same excellent service and experience that travelers expect from us."
The plan is a suggested road map for improvements, not a green light for any individual projects. It does not authorize funding. The city council will still have to approve each step of the plan, which is projected to cost $5.7 billion during the 20-year period.
As with all projects at the city-owned airport, local taxpayers do not foot the bill. The costs would be paid from airport passenger fees as well as state and federal grants.
"I know that an airport, especially of this quality, that doesn't continue to grow will die," council member Thelda Williams said to aviation director Jim Bennett after he presented the plan. "The impact that would have on Phoenix and Arizona would be tremendous. It would be disastrous. I believe that your plan not only looks out for Phoenix, the airlines, but also for Arizona and the Air Guard."
Williams motioned for the council to approve the plan, and it did so in a 9-0 vote.
The plan now goes to the FAA for approval.
Passenger, cargo, Air National Guard needs
In 2018, Sky Harbor Airport had just shy of 45 million passengers. If current trends continue, the staff projected, the airport will serve more than 70 million by 2039 and would need significant improvements to meet that demand.
But there are limitations to airport's 3,400-acre campus. It is restricted by train tracks, roadways and the Salt River. Terminals 3 and 4 do not connect with each other behind security, limiting the ability of airlines to connect passengers through partner airlines. The Air National Guard and cargo facilities also need room to grow.
And infrastructure projects take years to build. The city council first considered improvements to Terminal 3 in 2015. Phases of the project opened in 2016 and 2019, and the final phase won't be completed until 2020.
"This will help us add new capacity as well as improving the travel experience. We're also going to be making investments in the businesses around the airport and allowing the Air National Guard to expand," Gallego said.
'Trenching' the railroad tracks
Although Sky Harbor's current footprint is constrained by railroad tracks on the north, the airport owns a significant amount of real estate north of those tracks and is seeking to acquire more as parcels of land go on the market.
Thus, one of the key parts of the 20-year plan is to "trench" the railroad tracks — lower them below ground level — to create access to that land. The airport could then connect the land north of the tracks to its main campus by building taxiways over the tracks.
The airport would then move cargo facilities to that land, opening up room for the Air National Guard to grow and possibly bring in new refueling planes.
The plan would also allow the airport to move a lot of support services to that area, creating room to expand and connect the passenger terminals. Eventually, a tunnel would connect those services to the terminals, helping limit vehicles on the tarmac.
The estimated cost of trenching the railroad tracks is $441 million.
What happens to Terminal 2?
The aging Terminal 2 is expected to be demolished in 2020. But the site will still be used to get passengers onto planes.
The plan calls for the airport to create "bus gates" where passengers board buses that drive them to planes on the tarmac. Passengers then walk up a staircase to get into the plane.
These bus gates are a low-cost way for airports to gain flexibility. They don't have to pay or wait for the construction of gates. And they increase schedule flexibility because planes don't have to wait for gates to be available. They can just park on the tarmac and buses pick up and deliver passengers.
Last fall, the city council approved the purchase of "apron buses," a wider bus that sits lower to the ground and is designed to transport passengers to planes. The airport could have these gates in operation as soon as next year.
Eventually, the airport would build additional concourses and a new west terminal.
Breakdown of the 20-year plan
Here are the projects the airport predicts it will need to undertake over the next 20 years to meet the growth of passengers and cargo.
Phase 1: Years 0-5. Estimated cost: $1 billion.
- Completion of Terminal 4 Concourse S-1 under construction: $248 million.
- Construction of a new Terminal 3 North Concourse with six additional gates: $178 million.
- Demolition of Terminal 2 and replace it with bus gates: $28 million.
- Trench the railroad tracks: $441 million.
- Acquire land north of the railroad tracks: $25 million.
Phase 2: Years 5-10. Estimated cost: $1.2 billion.
- Built a new west terminal concourse: $361 million.
- Initial development of north cargo and facilities infrastructure: $263 million.
- A post-security passenger connector between Terminals 3 and 4: $194 million.
- Redesign Sky Harbor Boulevard for better connectivity, capacity and security: $137 million.
- Build a cross-field taxiway on the west side of the airfield: $74 million.
Phase 3: Years 10-20. Estimated cost: $1.7 billion.
- Completion of the west terminal's south-side concourses, roads and processing facilities: $1.3 billion.
- Expand cargo capacity on the north side: $122 million.
- Build a second west-side cross-field taxiway: $50 million.
Phase 4: After 20 years. Estimated cost: $1.8 billion.
- Development of the west terminal's north-side concourses and related facilities: $1.4 billion.
- A service-road tunnel connecting north-side operations and the facilities area to the terminals: $225 million.
- Redevelopment of Terminal 4's international concourse: $194 million.
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