Across the Aisle from Phoenix Aviation Director Jim Bennett on International Service, Terminal Projects, and the TSA

Across the Aisle Interviews, PHX - Phoenix

While I was in Phoenix for this year’s symposium, I had the chance to sit with the new Aviation Director in town, Jim Bennett. Jim was at Phoenix many years ago before he went on to DC and eventually Abu Dhabi. Now he’s returned. I initially was going to use the discussion to write a post, but I thought the whole interview was interesting enough to just put it out in an Across the Aisle format. Let’s see if you agree.


Cranky Flier: You’ve been away from [Phoenix] for awhile. In the meantime, things have changed here quite a bit. I guess I’m curious when you thought about coming back to Phoenix, what were the biggest challenges at the airport you wanted to solve?

Jim Bennett, City of Phoenix Aviation Director: One of the challenges that I worked on before I went to Washington and Abu Dhabi is international service in the Phoenix market. That’s one of the issues I certainly want to focus on and have been focusing on.

Cranky: This has been vexing to the people of Phoenix for a long time, right? You look at similarly-sized cities, you can talk about business demographics of Across the Aisle Phoenix Airportcourse, but the lack of long-haul international service certainly stands out. British Airways is the lone participant in that over a sustained period of time. Think about other places and the service they get, even from secondary types of carriers like Thomas Cook… After all, you are a leisure destination. Why don’t we see any of that here?

Jim: Those are all good questions and questions we ask the airlines on a regular basis. But the Phoenix market is a strong market. The international airline business is a very interesting business, and there’s somewhat of a herd mentality by international carriers for international service. You see a city such as Phoenix which is geographically-blessed but at the same time it’s a geographic negative in terms of its relationship to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver…. It’s very difficult to convince an airline “it’s OK to overfly California.”

Cranky: But you do see, for example, Vegas has seen tremendous growth. Obviously Vegas is a different type of destination but it is a leisure destination. And Phoenix has a tremendous leisure component.

Jim: Yes Phoenix has a leisure component but it’s also a business destination. That’s something that we’ve been working on for the past 25 or 30 years in international markets; trying to convince folks that Arizona has a tremendous leisure component but it is a business destination. And we are really starting to see that now when you look at job creation and growth. We’re back hitting on all cylinders here in Arizona and the airport is having record years in terms of passenger traffic. We just have to find that magic potion that gets the right carrier here.


Cranky: So what’s on your most-wanted list?

Jim: We would love to have an Asian service. We think we have a strong case for a Tokyo service.

Cranky: Presumably from American or [Japan Airlines]?

Jim: A oneworld partner would be the most logical service because we are such a large oneworld presence with American. And we would like to see another continental Europe service. That’s very important to us. We have terrific service from British Airways. We used to have service for a period of time from Lufthansa.

Cranky: It’s been more than 10 years now, right?

Jim: Yeah and they were here for about 3 years. The question is when you look at the European market, and where the oneworld hubs are, you know we’ve got the service to London with British and we’re coming up on the 20 year anniversary. And the other oneworld hub is Madrid. So we need to find a strong market that we can support out of Phoenix and on the other end it’s not necessarily going to be a oneworld hub.


Cranky: So how are you gonna do this? Your predecessors have all wanted to do the same thing.

Jim: One of the things you have to remember is it takes patience and research. Yesterday we were having a session with folks. The mayor asked a question of the group, “How much of air service market determination is science vs art?” And the overwhelming majority of it is science. There’s a lot of analysis that goes into it. It’s our responsibility to prove to the airlines scientifically that they can be profitable here. Long gone are the days when an airline could start a route and give it 3 or 4 or 5 years before they start making a profit. We need to be able to show that if they start the service, it’ll be profitable ideally from day 1. So we’re doing a lot of additional research trying to better understand our market and our passengers.

Cranky: So you’re just trying to provide more data.

Jim: We know we’re on lists. Now we just need to get ourselves to the top of those lists.

Cranky: Do you think it’s an issue of them not understanding the Phoenix market or do you think the market has changed and they just have outdated views?

Jim: I think it’s a function of the market has changed. They probably have some outdated views of the Phoenix market. It’s our job to prove to them what the market is today and what our customers are looking for and how the business community is willing to support that service.

Cranky: You seem focused on the idea of a year-round traditional flag carrier style service. But have you had conversations with some of the leisure guys?

Jim: Oh yeah. We’re absolutely talking to the Thomas Cooks and Condors of the world. Absolutely. Those are very important components and we would welcome services from those providers and have been communicating with them.


Cranky: I’m going to shift a little here to American, to the hub. American has done something that I thought was surprising. They’ve really built up Los Angeles and that means there’s the ability for a lot of Southern Californians to overfly Phoenix compared to how it used to be with US Airways and America West. Do you have any concerns about the future of the hub?

Jim: Just as a matter of principle, for the 35 years I’ve been in this business, I’ve always been concerned about the airline presence in my markets. You never take anything for granted. That said, all of our conversations with American have been very positive. We’ve seen continued growth by American in terms of their passenger levels and frequencies in some of their markets. We certainly watch what’s going on in Los Angeles. But a lot of that activity, they’re trying to get in that competitive mode for the international services. And the majority of services here, really all the services except Canada and Mexico, are US domestic. You don’t see that kind of growth taking place in Los Angeles from a domestic standpoint. We think Phoenix actually provides a very unique opportunity for American to feed the entire West Coast without using some of those limited and scarce resources at those airports.

Cranky: So you’re not seeing anything that concerns you other than your general level of concern.

Jim: Yeah, my general level of concern is always there. One of the things we’re doing here is making sure we remain very competitive in terms of our facilities and the costs of our facilities.


Cranky: Let’s talk about the facility a little bit. There had been some criticism about the train with the costs involved. What’s your vision for where this facility needs to go?

Jim: We are in the process of modernizing and updating what we refer to as Terminal 3 to give it more state-of-the-art facilities and services as well as adding additional gates.

Cranky: How many gates are you adding?

Jim: Well what we’re doing is essentially we’re replicating the gates on Terminal 2 so we can close and tear that down. The net effect will be no additional gates but we consolidate and save money by not maintaining and having to upgrade the old Terminal 2. That also does a tremendous thing for us in future capacity. It gives us the ability in the area to the west of Terminal 3 to start to straighten out our landside access and get a site ready for a future terminal once demand warrants. And then we’ll also continue our Sky Train from Terminal 3 all the way to the west to our consolidated rental car facility. The whole concept of the Sky Train is to alleviate congestion on our roadway system to give [travelers] a better experience coming in and out of Phoenix.

We’re also looking at additional gates. All airports are experiencing this. The 737 models evolve and you go the 800s and the 900s. And you see the A320s roll into the A321s. Then some of the widebodies, you get into things like the 787s and others. The wingspans have changed which, when you have older facilities like some of ours, it changes your parking configurations. You have to realign some gates and lose a gate here and there. We need to take a look at how we can perhaps bring some additional gates on.

Cranky: On the south side of Terminal 4 you could put another concourse on, right?

Jim: Correct.

Cranky: And that’s it?

Jim: When we put that additional concourse on, Terminal 4 it will be built out.

Cranky: Is there room for Terminal 3 to grow after this or do you need terminal, I don’t know, let’s call it 9 since the numbering doesn’t make any sense?

Jim: We’ll call it Terminal 12 because it’ll be where Terminals 1 and 2 used to be. *laughing* After we clear out Terminal 2, the next logical thing to do would be to build a new facility on the west side that could be incrementally expanded, not too different from how Terminal 4 was originally built.


Cranky: So when are these things happening?

Jim: The Terminal 3 project is about a 2019 time period. In fact, later this year we’ll open the first phase which will be a new ticketing lobby, new consolidated security check point…. We hope to start work on the new south concourse by the end of this year, early next year.

Cranky: When does the train get built out?

Jim: It needed to be built out yesterday. But we’re in the process of identifying the financing plan that will allow us to move that forward. Once we get that done, it’s about a 4-year project.


Cranky: Do you have any need for additional runways?

Jim: We don’t. We have 3 runways and given our weather conditions most of the time, we can operate those three runways quite efficiently. We’re actually operating in today’s market, we’re probably operating about 100,000 operations per year less than what peak used to be. So we have plenty of airfield capacity.


Cranky: I’ll wrap it up with one last thought. I’ll probably want to get a picture of your face here, but how’s TSA doing these days?

Jim: Like all of my colleagues around the country, it’s a very frustrating experience dealing with TSA.

Cranky: So what can you do?

Jim: That’s one of the more frustrating aspects of the situation. There’s not a whole lot we can do at the airport but sit back and take the abuse like the rest of the passengers around the country. The bottom line is you’ve got an agency that can’t keep pace with an industry that is growing and will continue to grow. You’ve got one aspect of the federal government, called the Federal Aviation Administration, telling us we’re gonna have a billion enplanements here in a few years in our air transportation system. Then you’ve got another federal agency, called the Department of Homeland Security, that Congress keeps a cap and budget restraint on and won’t allow them grow their resources in order to match that up. Somewhere those guys need to get together and have a conversation as to how they’re going to accommodate this continued growth.

Cranky: If only…

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20 comments on “Across the Aisle from Phoenix Aviation Director Jim Bennett on International Service, Terminal Projects, and the TSA

  1. I’ve flown through Phoenix a couple of times recently and was very impressed with the airport in terms of layout and ease of use. Along with American, WN has a very large presence – quite appropriate given their name :-)

    With regard to international traffic, they seem to be pursuing a sound strategy. I would think the could also get WN to fly to markets in Mexico and the western Caribbean.

  2. I feel Jim’s pain as a fellow airport manager. Innovation in aviation is dead and airports have to do all the work to convince airlines to take a chance. We show them a route that makes sense but theyre stuck in their hub mentality. Getting airlines to engage in a meaningful discussion is almost impossible. Meanwhile they are happy to burn fuel holding for an extra slot at their hubs and funnelling people through capacity constrained airports.

  3. Seems like a great candidate for JAL dreamliner service.

    Surprised by low x-atl connectivity compared to DEN or even SLC. I’m guessing that has more to do with alliances (skyteam locks down CDG and AMS, star controls FRA) than with PHX itself. Interested if you or your interviewee had any thoughts along those lines. They should aggressively pursue the Air Berlin and Condor types because I don’t think DL will make nice with Paris and the LH service already came and went.

    1. Bill from DC – If we’re talking about overwater flights, then I think the opportunity is with a foreign carrier (other than an AA/JL 787 to Narita, possibly). For Europe, the leisure carriers seem like a no-brainer in the winter. I can’t figure out why someone like Condor hasn’t done that yet seasonally. It makes no sense unless the airport just hasn’t been interested in those carriers so they’ve gone elsewhere.

      For Asia? I just don’t see it (other than the Narita flight as a slim possibility). Of course if Delta could put a 757 in there, it might have tried it like it’s done in Pittsburgh and Raleigh/Durham to Europe. But there’s no way it would commit a widebody to trying something from a place like Phoenix.

      1. Thanks, makes sense. I guess I’m still stunned by SLC-AMS in addition to CDG. PHX has a much larger metro area and business community than SLC.

        I’m guessing it’s primarily alliance driven. Clearly AA / oneworld doesn’t see PHX as a priority for international service as all thaleir attention is focused on DFW and LAX which basically sandwich PHX.

  4. It’s interesting that PHX struggles to get international service. Believe the metro is 5th or 6th largest in the nation which would make one believe there is enough business to warrant more service regardless of any leisure aspect. Philadelphia is very close to NYC yet maintains international service, same goes for Boston. Granted there is a higher population density on the east coast but I would think Phoenix could support a daily to Japan.

    1. A – The city of Phoenix is the 5th or 6th largest city in the US but the metro area isn’t in the top 10. Still, it’s large enough that it could warrant more long haul service, if the business demographic is right.

      1. How many fortune 500 companies call metro Phoenix home – curious.

        Phoenix closely mirrors Las Vegas in that both metros have attracted a fare amount of seasonal & retired residents. But unlike Las Vegas, there is a decent corporate base. That said, it is nowhere to the size of either Houston or Dallas & the airlines know this & they adjust their hubs accordingly with international connections there.

        1. Avnet, Freeport McMoRan, Republic Services, PetSmart and Insight are all HQ’d in the Valley. Caterpillar will have their US Operations in Tucson soon.

          Some Fortune 100 companies with a significant Valley footprint: Amazon, BofA, Amex, AIG, Honeywell and JPMorgan Chase.

          Don’t forget Sky Mall and U-Haul are based here, too. ;)

  5. A –

    Population alone is not the sole criteria. Asian carriers want to see a healthy amount of business traffic on the route. I could be wrong but I don’t think that PHX has a very large corporate presence. It certainly has some, but in comparison to other cities, it slants more toward the leisure traveler, I believe.

  6. I wonder if the international service might come from Wow or Norwegian, which might look to tap into the underserved market to/from Europe.

    Thanks for sharing the entire interview, Cranky. Very informative!

  7. It’s my observation that the vast majority of those who use the Skytrain to get to Sky Harbor are those employed there, and there are a lot of people who work there.

    When I moved to Phoenix in 1976, the only terminals at Sky Harbor were Terminals 1 and 2. Both will soon be history. The city didn’t renumber the remaining terminals after Terminal 1 was torn down (ostensibly to avoid confusion), but may have to rethink that after Terminal 2 is demolished. I hope the city can save the large mural in the entry to Terminal 2.

    I can see year round international service to Tokyo Narita in the future, but other than that, there’s not a lot of reason to have anything more than seasonal service, but I don’t now all of the demographic and travel patterns, either.

  8. Once Aer Lingus joins Oneworld, will a nonstop Phoenix-Dublin flight be feasible? I know a lot of the O&D traffic is leisure-oriented, but how does Dublin work as a transit hub? Would someone traveling on business to Frankfurt or Amsterdam be better off changing planes there instead of DFW or Philly (or Heathrow)? And would it require an AA 787 base in Phoenix?

    1. Patrick – Feasible? Sure, but my guess is it won’t be at the top of the list for Aer Lingus. It will have a lot of opportunity to grow the US market, but I just don’t think there’s enough value for the Phoenix nonstop to be high on the list. After all, IAG already has BA in the market and probably won’t want to divert connections off that one.

    2. I took nonstop from LHR-PHX on British Airways. It’s much easier for me. There’s no problem for me at all. I flew on 747-400. The flight is always full and I hear this route has done extremely very well.

      1. Wow… That’s a big plane! If the load factors are that strong on something so large, that alone should provide evidence of a very solid x-atl market.

        1. Why do the comparison ex-ATL? Phoenix is too far west to connect to anything except the west coast from Transatlantic flights. it would be a natural entry point for something out of Asia or even South Pacific, but why would I want to fly to Phoenix and than backtrack to the Midwest or east coast?

          It’s like Miami being an entry point for Canadians or people living in the Northeast US from Europe.

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Cranky Flier