The state of Arizona was slightly more than 20 years old when city of Phoenix leaders paid $100,000 to purchase Sky Harbor Airport from Acme Investment Company.
The year was 1935, and the airport was so isolated from everything that residents nicknamed it “The Farm.”
Today, Sky Harbor International Airport – America’s Friendliest Airport – generates an economic impact just shy of $30 billion.
November is Aviation History Month and presents an excellent opportunity to trace how The Farm has not only blossomed into one of the country’s premier airports, but also has a promising future being planned and built right now.
From farm field to airfield
Back in the 1930s the airport had a single terminal and gate. Sky Harbor was led by Carl “Pappy” Knier, who headed the airport as manager until the mid-1940s.
During this time the airport began its transition from farm field to airfield. A two-way radio system was installed and Transcontinental Western Air, Inc. (TWA) began both passenger and mail service between Phoenix and San Francisco.
In the 1940s, the airport supported war efforts by operating a triangular landing system that allowed military aircraft to take off and land in any direction.
Continued growth in the area propelled the need for the construction of a new terminal in the next decade. Thus, Terminal 1 – the first modern terminal – was completed in 1952. It served passengers until it was demolished in 1991. Subsequent terminals were not renumbered.
Terminal 2 opened in 1962, and the airport surpassed the 1 million passenger mark in annual service.
By the 1970s, the aviation industry was undergoing profound changes, stemming largely from The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 passed by Congress during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
The legislation meant that the government would no longer have control over airfares or where new airlines could fly, which in turn triggered new airlines and more competition in the industry.
In 1979, Terminal 3 was completed at a cost of $35 million, encompassing 880,000 square feet.
It was shadowed by a FAA tower that opened two years earlier and reached 180 feet in the air.
An era of unprecedented growth
In 1982, Neilson “Dutch” Berthold began a 16-year career as aviation director at the airport and guided Sky Harbor through unprecedented growth.
The airport recorded approximately 7 million passengers when Dutch began his tenure in the early 1980s. By the time he stepped down in 1998, that figure had more than quadrupled to more than 31 million passengers.
Sky Harbor held a ground-breaking ceremony for Terminal 4 in October 1989 with the facility opening for business about a year later. The terminal today – named after U.S. senator from Arizona and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater – is the airport’s busiest, handling more than 80 percent of Sky Harbor’s passenger traffic.
A third runway was added and opened in 2000, the consolidated Rental Car Center opened in 2006, and in 2007, the FAA opened a new 325-foot air traffic control tower.
The evolution continues
To provide travelers with a seamless connection between terminals, the East Economy Parking lot and Valley Metro’s Light Rail, the PHX Sky Train® was built, with the first phase opening in April 2013. In December 2014, Stage 1A opened connecting Terminals 3 and 4. The PHX Sky Train® operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and arrives at the stations every 3-5 minutes during peak times. It is also the only rail system in the world to cross over an active taxiway.
The finishing touches of the first phase of the Terminal 3 Modernization Program will be completed soon. When it opens later this year, passengers and airport visitors will be able look through panoramic glass panels to see the distinctive mountain ranges surrounding the area, as well as the landmarks and features that make the Valley of the Sun unique.
Terminal 3 enhancements include a consolidated security checkpoint and additional ticket counters that will help customers move through the terminal more efficiently, as well amazing art. Future phases include a new south concourse and upgrades to the north concourse, including new retail and food and beverage concessions as well as other customer amenities.
Phoenix Sky Harbor is led by James E. Bennett, who was named director of aviation services in August 2015. Bennett brings decades of international aviation expertise and a strategic understanding of Phoenix after previously working for the city. Under his leadership and team, America’s Friendliest Airport® promises to usher in another era of spectacular growth and development.