Why Doesn’t Sky Harbor Airport have a Terminal 1?
Excerpt from Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published September 26, 1999.)
Q: Why, when you drive into Phoenix SkyHarbor International Airport, is there a sign that says there are three terminals: 2, 3 and 4? Where I come from, we started counting at “one.”
A: That sign just nags at you every time you see it, doesn’t it? It’s like a picture that isn’t quite straight or like sitting across from someone with a loose thread on their cuff: You just have to fix it.
There is a perfectly good reason for the terminal-numbering system. Actually, it isn’t perfectly good, but it will have to do. And if you think it’s silly now, there is a possibility that in the far distant future, we will only have two terminals — 4 and 5.
First, some history. Time was, children, when we actually had a Terminal 1. It stood a bit west of Terminal 2. It opened in 1952 and was a big deal at the time. Its restaurant, which for a time barred Blacks, was described as “a symphony in chrome, leather and soft-toned wood.”
People actually went to the airport to eat. Can you imagine? Terminal 1 was Terminal Only until 1962, when Terminal 2 opened. There was almost immediately talk of tearing down Terminal 1, but it hung on until 1991, when it was razed shortly after Terminal 4 opened. At which point we were left with terminals 2, 3 and 4.
The city last year  spent about $2.5 million redoing all the signage at the airport, and that would have seemed like a pretty good time to renumber the terminals as 1, 2 and 3. But Bob Petrillo, an Aviation Department engineer who worked on the new signs, said that after all those years, new numbers wouldn’t have worked.
“I think that would have caused even more confusion. So many people know, for instance, that America West is in Terminal 4, and that building is Terminal 4,” Petrillo said.
The long-range plan, according to Petrillo, calls for a big new terminal and destruction of Terminal 3.
Under the current logic, we would then have a sign that read “There are two terminals: 4 and 5,” but Petrillo said it is more likely that they would be known as the East and West terminals.
I’m going to miss Terminal 2 when it’s day comes. There’s nothing like rolling into the West Economy Lot and taking a short walk to the terminal. No fuss, no muss, no bus.
Of course, having a new uberterminal to replace 2 and 3 might actually give the airport room for some real international flights. It’s so irritating that we live in one of the 10 most-populous cities in America, yet we have to fly to LAX, ORD or JFK for any transcontinental flight except London.
I was in Terminal 1 many times, and we DID go there just to eat or to watch planes come in and take off. You could park near the door and walk out on the tarmac to the fence, where you might stand and watch a DC-3 taxi in, the stairs wheeled out to it, the door opened, and passengers come down and walk across to get their luggage with the help of vigilant Sky Caps. If a plane left the gate, the backwash and fumes from the props, as it turned tail to you, would about blow you away. I loved that terminal.
Terminal 1 was very neat. I remember picking up my grandmother at Terminal 1 in the mid-70’s. She walked down the back stairs out of the tail and walked into the building! It was a cool place to go watch planes. Many times we went just to do that!
Growing up in East Africa in the 80s, it wasn’t that unusual to:
a) go to the airport for a meal: there was a restaurant in an airport hotel that was known to locals as a great restaurant to try international cuisine. We went there some times.
b) go to the airport to watch airplanes: we did that. The airport in our city had rooftop pavilions where visitors can climb up to and wave to the passengers below who were embarking or disembarking. I remember it was a total adventure to go pick up someone at the airport. Kids and adults alike considered it an event. We went to the airport and went to the rooftop pavilion to check out the planes and see if we could see our friend(s) disembark. We always could because there were never more than one flight disembarking at a time. There were about two international flights every night. Once we spotted our friend(s), we’d wait a bit before meeting them at the arrival hall. It was a very fun and relaxed affair.