For the first time since the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is growing.
The number of takeoffs and landings are near where they were before the attacks and the airport is again seeing increases in the volume of passengers it serves.
In fact, Sky Harbor business is so brisk hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements are planned over the next two years, including a new concourse in Terminal 4, the airport’s busiest.
"The bottom line is we have recovered to the pre 9/11 numbers, and I do genuinely think we’re poised to grow again," said David Krietor, Phoenix aviation director.
Sky Harbor grew by an average of 5 percent a year in passenger volume from 1990 to 2000, Krietor said. From 2000 through 2002 and the first quarter of 2003, there was no net increase.
"Essentially you had no net growth in a place that historically was growing at about 5 percent a year," Krietor said. "What’s happened now though is I think we have recovered the momentum."
Statistics compiled by the Airports Council International for the first four months of this year show Sky Harbor was the fastest growing of the world’s 10 largest airports, with a 7 percent increase in passenger traffic. The council also found the airport was the fifth busiest in the United States and ninth busiest in the world between January and March, and that it moved ahead of rival Denver International during the same time period.
The jump over Denver comes as no surprise to Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, a Colorado-based airline consulting group. Four years ago his firm predicted Phoenix would eclipse Denver. He recently attended a conference forecasting passenger numbers that showed Phoenix will be the fifth-largest U.S. airport before 2012.
"That assumes airlines don’t crater on us, and it also assumes you still have water," Boyd said. "The area’s growing. It’s almost entirely driven by the economics of the area. We don’t show connecting traffic growing very much. What we show is more and more people moving into the Valley. That alone starts to generate passenger traffic. It’s real traffic and consumers who spend money in Phoenix."
While Denver and Phoenix will spar with one another over which one serves more passengers annually, Boyd said Sky Harbor will move permanently into fifth place, behind Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth, sometime after 2008.
Krietor is more optimistic. He says if Sky Harbor doesn’t serve more passengers than Denver this year, it will next year.
"We’re growing faster than Denver population-wise and America West is — who would have thought we would say this three or four years ago— they’re healthier than United Airlines," Krietor said. United uses Denver as a hub.
Krietor said the low fares, especially by Southwest Airlines and America West Airlines, and an improving economy contributed to the airport’s comeback after the attacks.
"I would also say there’s a sense that we are crawling out of this lengthy recession," he said. "Our numbers started to flatten in the first quarter of 2001, even before 9/11, and you could see we were moving into an economic downturn."
Adding 100,000 residents a year to the Valley doesn’t hurt either, Krietor said.
"Your origin and destination base is getting bigger," he said. "It’s not like we’re sitting in Buffalo or Cleveland where your base is stagnant. Even during a recessionary time, the number of people that live here has been increasing, which increases your base."
Because the Valley’s population is expected to be 5 million by 2020, the airport is planning improvements. "This airport is going to need to service a population base of that size so there’s no question we’re going to grow," Krietor said.
In the next week or so, construction will begin on a new $50 million eight-gate concourse at Terminal 4. The terminal was designed for eight concourses and has four on its north side and two on on its south.
The new concourse will be built on the south side and allow Southwest to move all its operations to that side of the terminal. The four concourses to the north will be used by America West or other airlines.
A new six-lane security checkpoint will be built to serve the new concourse, lessening lines at other checkpoints, Krietor said. The project is expected to be finished during the first four months of 2005.
Sky Harbor has begun construction on at $250 million consolidated car rental facility on 141 acres at 16th Street and Buckeye Road. A 150,000 square-foot terminal building will be built on top of a 5,700-car parking garage. A fleet of 56 buses will serve the center.
"It will house all of the car rental operations at the airport so no more car rental cars in the terminal garages, no more counters in the terminal buildings," Krietor said. "Every passenger will get on a dedicated bus system that will service the rental car facility. They’ll go there, do their transaction and return their car there. You won’t have the Avis bus, and the Hertz bus and the National bus all clogging of the road system."
The center will be completed in the first four months of 2005.
The airport is designing the first section of an an automated rail line that will move passengers between the East Economy parking lot and the airport’s three terminals. It is expected to be done at the end of 2007 or early 2008. It is trying to accelerate a connection with the proposed light rail line at 44th and Washington streets.
Construction will begin in the next two months on a new 335-foot, $54 million traffic control tower that aviation officials say will be safer, more efficient and about double the size of the present one. It is expected to be ready by late 2005.
To cure what the airport calls a "chronic circling syndrome," officials plan to set up a free parking lot west of Terminal 2.
Called Stage and Go, those arriving to pick up passengers would go to the parking lot and wait until the arriving party calls for their ride. Initially plans call for as many as 40 spots to open next spring, but the lot will grow to 70 spaces.
Within four months of its opening, Sky Harbor hopes to have flight information displays in the lot so it’s possible for those picking up passengers to know when the flight has arrived.
"We’re really trying to diminish the potential for conflict between our customers who are picking people up and our people that are trying to keep the curb spaces clear," Krietor said.
Changes in airport employee parking are being implemented as well.
Before the terrorist attacks, employees parked in remote lots on the west side of the airport. To save $200,000 on shuttling them, employees were allowed to park in vacant terminals.
"Passengers are back and we’ve come close to closing the Terminal 4 garage a few times because of the number of employees there and we’re now moving the employees back to the remote parking lots," Krietor said. "I wouldn’t say that they’re thrilled by that."