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Expect packed terminals, labor strike this Thanksgiving at Sky Harbor

Here's what you need to know to navigate holiday travel on Arizona roads and in the Phoenix airport.
"We expect to see at least a 25% increase over our normal travel around Thanksgiving," Sky Harbor spokesperson Greg Roybal told Phoenix New Times.
"We expect to see at least a 25% increase over our normal travel around Thanksgiving," Sky Harbor spokesperson Greg Roybal told Phoenix New Times. Southwest Airlines
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Arizonans traveling for Thanksgiving can expect overstuffed roadways and a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with packed terminals and workers on strike.

Airport concession workers walked out on Tuesday as the busy holiday period got underway. They are protesting working conditions and alleged labor law violations against SSP America, which manages concessions at the airport through a contract with the city of Phoenix.

Sky Harbor — which recently nabbed a national award — could experience a record-breaking holiday travel season.

"We expect to see at least a 25% increase over our normal travel around Thanksgiving," Sky Harbor spokesperson Greg Roybal told Phoenix New Times. That means about 162,000 people — up from the usual 130,000 people — will be making their way through the airport each day from Wednesday through Monday.

On a national level, AAA is forecasting as many as 55.4 million travelers hitting the roadways. That's a 2.3% increase from last year, making 2023’s Thanksgiving weekend the third-busiest since the organization started tracking travelers in 2000. The top two spots go to 2005 and 2019, respectively.

Locally, AAA expects about 1.12 million Arizonans to take to the roads and skies this weekend.

“Travel demand has truly bounced back to pre-pandemic levels,” Brian Ng, senior vice president of membership and travel marketing for AAA Arizona, said in a press release. “Our holiday travel projections show the yearlong trend of Arizonans’ eagerness to get away and create memories with family and friends.”
click to enlarge The Interstate 10 Stack in Phoenix
The Arizona Department of Transportation paused construction projects during the holiday weekend.
Alan Stark / Flickr

The best times to travel in Phoenix

According to AAA spokesperson Julian Paredes, Wednesday will be the most congested travel day for drivers. He suggested avoiding metro Phoenix between noon and 6 p.m.

"Generally speaking, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. are the worst times to be on the road all Thanksgiving week. The best advice really is starting your trip in the morning, or at least be out of the metro by rush hour," Paredes told the Arizona Republic.

To help with traffic, the Arizona Department of Transportation is pausing construction projects on state highways from Wednesday afternoon to Monday morning.

ADOT projected that I-17 and Route-87 north of the Phoenix area, as well as I-10 in areas between the Tucson or Phoenix metro areas and California, will be especially busy.

Check AZDOT.gov or call 511 for the latest information on road closures and accidents that may delay your travels.

At Sky Harbor, Roybal expects Wednesday to be the busiest day at the airport.

"The best time to travel is when you have a flight that's on Monday or Tuesday," he said. Although travel will be the lightest on Turkey Day, it will quickly pick up as families start to return home on Friday and Saturday, Roybal said.

But if you were hoping to beat the post-Thanksgiving rush by traveling back to Phoenix on Sunday or Monday, you might be in for more of the same — big crowds.

"Sunday and Monday following Thanksgiving will probably be very busy, too," he said. "We would not be surprised if this year ended up being a record-breaking year."
click to enlarge Bobby Flay at Sky Harbor airport
Chef Bobby Flay presenting a Crunch Burger containing potato chips, bacon and Bobby's Sauce at his new restaurant at Sky Harbor.
Jaron Quach

Navigating Sky Harbor airport

Last December, Sky Harbor completed the second stage of its PHX Sky Train improvement project, so this will be the first Thanksgiving holiday travelers can benefit from faster transit times between parking garages and terminals. The stations are located on each side of the airport at 44th Street on the east side and 24th Street on the west side.

Instead of navigating clogged curbsides at the terminals, Roybal suggests travelers utilize ridesharing and ask to be dropped off at Sky Train stations.

"If you get on the PHX Sky Train, within five minutes, 10 minutes, you'll be at your terminal, you'll literally be flying over the roadways," Roybal said. "You can be walking to your gate like 10 minutes after that. It's so easy."

Being dropped off also means you can avoid paying $30 per day to park in garages at the terminals — or $33 if you want premium parking near the terminal elevators. The three economy garages require a $16 payout per day a car is parked, while two economy surface lots cost $14 each day. The 24th Street station also offers 1,600 parking spots at $14 per day. Check the airport's website for space availability and to book parking.

Environmentally conscious travelers also can enjoy some special perks this week. Sky Harbor’s recently launched Green Curb, an electric vehicle program, offers a convenient pick-up area with unique signage and markings. And Uber riders can snag a 40% discount on airport pick-up and drop-off fees when they select Uber’s electric rides.

While you can save some time using the PHX Sky Trains and ride-shares, Roybal suggested that passengers arrive at the airport earlier than normal — and double-check your flight status with airlines before heading to the airport.

"If you're flying nationally, it's best to come to the airport two hours early. For international flights, three hours," Roybal said.

Early arrivals should have more time to savor a new food hall in Terminal 4. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay was on hand in early October for the grand opening of Crystals at Sky Harbor Food Hall. His Bobby's Burgers is among the new spots that opened.
click to enlarge Felipe Caceres at Sky Harbor airport
Felipe Caceres kicked off a Workers United rally at the airport on Sept. 19 by leading SSP and Prospect Airport Services workers in chants of "si, se puede!"
O'Hara Shipe

Labor unrest at ‘America’s Friendliest Airport’

On Nov. 16, the Wall Street Journal named Sky Harbor — which calls itself "America's Friendliest Airport" — the nation’s top large airport. The award is based on a number of factors such as the fewest flight cancellations, taxi out time and ride-share fees.

“We know that people love Sky Harbor for its access to local Arizona foods and restaurants, and the dedication of our Aviation Department employees to deliver a top-notch experience every day. I am immensely proud of our employees and our city for these honors and look forward to welcoming even more travelers to our great city in the year ahead,” Phoenix City Councilmember Ann O’Brien said in a press release.

The award and glad-handing come in the middle of major labor unrest with airport workers.

United Airlines flight attendants are working with expired contracts and have already begun picketing. Employees with Prospect Airport Services, a contracted company that provides aviation support, such as baggage handlers and wheelchair pushers, have filed complaints with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health over what they call “hellish conditions.”

On Tuesday, concessions workers with SSP America, walked out for the second time in less than a month. The workers allege that the company has ignored complaints to ADOSH about the presence of cockroaches and rats in the kitchens of several Terminal 4 restaurants.

“The work environment described in this complaint is absolutely unacceptable,” said Susan Minato, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, the union representing concessions workers. “The city of Phoenix must take the health and safety risks to workers and customers seriously.”
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