By Robert McGarvey
I need to count myself lucky. The Points Guy has again annointed Phoenix- Sky Harbor Airport as the nation’s best and, because I live in Phoenix, I am in and out of it with some frequency.
I still remember when I first saw it – 1974 on a business trip – and I was a north Jersey kid who had lived in Boston and moved to Washington DC for a job. I just did not understand that at Sky Harbor the way to exit was that they pushed some kind of stairway out to the plane. Back then, it seemed so, well, hick.
A lot has changed at Sky Harbor as Phoenix has grown to be the nation’s fifth biggest city.
Understand, I moved to Phoenix six years ago, after a stint in Jersey City where my regular was EWR, just a few miles away from my home. I actually grew to like Newark Airport, mainly out of familiarity, but you could also call it a product of the Stockholm syndrome. EWR, per the Points Guy, is in a race for the bottom rank against its Port Authority brethren, LGA and JFK. Okay, they all suck. But when you live there, you get used to them.
When I moved to Phoenix I saw – vividly – what a better airport really looks like.
What made Sky Harbor number one in this ranking? According to the Points Guy: “What’s Sky Harbor doing right? Like last time, it didn’t come in first in any one category but made strong showings in nearly all of them, including being easily reached by car or bus, having cheap parking, negligible wait times at security compared to other airports and respectably low delay and cancellation rates (though it could use more lounges for its size).”
Yep. I get there via Light Rail -$2 for a one way fare – that takes maybe 20 minutes from my door. Inside, I remember only once encountering a daunting security line – I stupidly was flying on the Monday of a three-day weekend in the spring and Phoenix had filled up with students on break as well as Cactus League devotees. My bad. I still made my plane. But it was not the fast stroll that security usually is at Phx, even without TSA Pre (which I acquired only a year or so ago).
With Pre, by the way, security is in the blink of an eye. Painless, no friction, pleasant TSA staff.
Flights don’t often get cancelled at Sky Harbor. The most common reason is heat. But that’s rare. A big plus for Phoenix.
As for lounges, I usually head to the Priority Pass lounge in Terminal 4. It’s okay but I would not write home about it. I’ve been in various airline lounges at Phx and they too are okay (if rather overcrowded). Put a Centurion Lounge in Sky Harbor and I’d do cartwheels but I don’t see that on the Amex roadmap. Pity.
If you get into a lounge free at PHX, do it. (I have access via Priority Pass, also Diner’s Club.) But I wouldn’t part with a sawbuck to buy entry into any of them.
Another grumble: Sky Harbor is not a truly international airport. Sure, it has flights to Canada and Mexico. Also Frankfurt and London. There’s a flight to Costa Rica. That’s about it. Sorry. If you are going to Paris or Singapore or Helsinki you are going to fly to Heathrow or Atlanta or JFK or Lax first.
To me, this is a bummer. I lived most of my adult life in cities where international flights were plentiful (Washington DC, LAX, and EWR).
The restaurant situation could be better – but it at least has put an emphasis on local joints, not only big chains. Barrio Cafe, La Grande Orange, Cartel Coffee, Matt’s Big Breakfast are all Phoenix local staples that I can recommend.
So PHX isn’t a culinary wasteland. Even if it doesn’t hit foodie home runs.
But you adjust. And you accept that PHX still does lots of things very well indeed.
Incidentally, it’s not just the Points Guy who showers love on Sky Harbor. It placed third in a Wall Street Journal ranking. It placed in the top 10 in a Conde Nast Traveler ranking (number 7 to be exact).
Is it simply that Sky Harbor is good because it is small? That occurred to me and, no, it’s not that small. PHX ranks as the 9th busiest airport in the U.S. O’Hare, DFW, JFK, Atlanta of course are much bigger. But Phoenix can’t be dismissed as tiny.
So why is it good? Maybe it’s because it strives to be the friendliest airport and, in many ways, it succeeds. It also is clean and when it has a failure – bed bugs for instance – it attacks the problem with the aim of fixing it.
And Sky Harbor also simply seems to believe it can be good and efficient.
Generally it succeeds.