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Guide to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

Located just 3 miles (5 km) to the east of Phoenix in the state of Arizona, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) is a civil-military airport and the biggest and busiest in the state. It consistently ranks in the top ten busiest U. S. airports and is also often rated in the top fifteen globally.

Commercially, it is an American Airlines operational hub and an important center of Southwest Airlines North American business while the military use Phoenix Airport as a center for the 161st Refuelling Wing. Part of (yet separate from) the airport, the military section of the airfield is called the Goldwater Air National Guard Base.

The airport uses the IATA (International Air Transport Association) code PHX, which is simply an abbreviation for Phoenix.

Sky Harbor or Phoenix International Airport?

Built in 1928, the airport was first called Sky Harbor but why this name was chosen is unknown. It was one of four airports to be built in the Phoenix area and consisted of just a single runway. Short of cash after the Stock Market crashed in 1929, owners Scenic Airways sold the airfield to the Acme Investment Company who, in turn, sold it on to the civil authorities of Phoenix in 1935.

Although several smaller airline companies operated out of Phoenix it wasn't until 1938, when TWA began serving San Francisco, that the airport became established. TWA extended its operations at the airport when it added flights to major cities such as Los Angeles and New York in 1944. In 1946, Arizona Airways also ran numerous local in-state flights before merging to become Frontier Airlines four years later and adding new destinations including Denver, El Paso and Albuquerque.

After the second World War ended, work began on the construction of a new terminal building and two new runways. The new terminal opened along with a new control tower in 1952 but these were subsequently demolished in 1991.

By 1957, there were around 42 scheduled departures daily and this number increased as Western Airlines (1958), Continental Airlines (1961) and Delta Air Lines (1969) began to use the airport for scheduled flights. One of the runways was removed in order to build new terminal buildings with the new Terminal 2 coming into service in 1962. Another terminal, Terminal 3 was built in 1979 and further airline companies were added to the Phoenix roster as both Eastern Airlines and Allegheny Airlines (soon to become USAir) commenced operations from the airport that same year and were joined by United Airlines a year later. In 1982, Southwest Airlines also joined the ever-growing list of airlines using PHX as the airport continued to expand its passenger and cargo capacity. As growth continued, another terminal was required and a new terminal, Terminal 4, was added in 1990 and housed four concourses making it the largest terminal at PHX.

Upon final completion in 2019, Terminal 4 was named the Barry M. Goldwater Terminal after the former senator of Arizona and it was proposed that the airport should also bear his name. The proposal failed to find favour with the local population who were enamoured of the Sky Harbor name. Similarly, the name Phoenix International Airport was also refused before a compromise was reached whereby the Sky Harbor name could be retained and the airport finally became Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Terminals, Towers and Transportation

Following much redevelopment there are now two terminal buildings at Phoenix Airport. Strangely enough these are designated Terminal 3 and Terminal 4. This is because there were once four terminals (numbered 1 to 4) but terminals 1 and 2 are no longer used. It was decided that, as passengers were already familiar with Terminals 3 and 4 it would be less confusing if these retained their numbers rather than renumber them as 1 and 2.

Terminal 3

Containing 25 gates, Terminal 3 is connected to Terminal 4 by the PHX Sky Train.

Terminal 4

Contains 92 gates and is used for international passengers without pre-clearance.
There are three parallel runways at PHX, which covers almost 3,400 acres of land. The air traffic control (ATC) tower, which only commenced operations in 2007, stands 326 feet tall and is one of the tallest in North America.

Moving between terminals at PHX is done via an automated people-mover; the PHX Sky Train. This free service operates between the 44th Street and Washington Light Rail station and the East Economy Parking facility as well as through and between the two terminals.

Immigration and Customs on Arrival

Whatever U.S. airport or seaport an international traveler enters the United States, it is always necessary to possess the right documentation and to be screened through immigration and customs checkpoints. All non-U.S. citizens must produce either an ESTA approved passport with a linked application number or a valid U.S. Visa in order to enter the United States and which one is required will depend on the country of origin of the passport being traveled under. There are two categories, ESTA travelers, and Visa travelers.

ESTA Travelers

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is required for travelers from any of the 41 countries on the American Visa Waiver Program (VWP) list. Citizens of these countries must have applied for and received an ESTA, which is basically a background check, and which is electronically linked to a passport and can be viewed by U.S. immigration authorities upon arrival in the United States.

U.S. Visa Travelers

This is an old-fashioned paper document which must accompany the holder's passport. A U.S. Visa must be applied for at a U.S. embassy (or designated agency) in the country from which the passport holder is traveling. This is a far more complicated procedure than applying for an ESTA and seeking professional assistance with the form-filling and document assembly is advisable and often necessary.

Clearing U.S. Customs at PHX

Passport, visa and any relevant documentation will be checked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) staff. Having cleared immigration, the next step is to move on to the baggage claim area and collect any luggage. Here, it will be necessary to enter a U.S. Customs line where bags and hand luggage may be opened and searched and questions asked regarding the contents of any luggage. Travelers on a U.S. Visa must also present a completed Customs Declaration form which is usually filled out before landing.

Once through the immigration and customs checks, international passengers can exit into the arrivals area from where onward connections can be made or transportation into Phoenix and beyond can be found.

Transfers and Ground Transportation

As downtown Phoenix is only a few short miles from Phoenix Airport, taxis are an affordable (and plentiful) option for getting to and from PHX. However, travelers are not limited to taxis and cars.

Bus Service

Valley Metro Route 13 runs from Phoenix Greyhound station and terminates near Terminal 3.

Bus and Sky Train

Route 44 runs to the 44th Street Sky Train Station where the airport's shuttle service will take travelers to the airport's terminal buildings.

There is no direct rail link to Phoenix Airport and passengers wishing to reach destinations other than Phoenix can avail of a number of shuttle services (car and minibus) which will travel to numerous destinations in Arizona for a negotiated fee.