What Is The Origin Of Phoenix Airport’s ‘Sky Harbor’ Name?

Phoenix Sky Harbor International is the largest and busiest airport in the US state of Arizona. A hub for American Airlines, and a focus city for JSX and Southwest, its name comes across as slightly unconventional compared to other US hubs. But where does the ‘Sky Harbor’ designation come from? Let’s take a look back in time and find out.

Phoenix Sky harbor Airport Getty
Sky Harbor was the fourth airport to have been built in Phoenix. Photo: Getty Images

Almost 100 years under the same name

It is nearly a century since Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport came into existence. The facility was a product of the late 1920s, with construction having begun in 1928. Completion of the initial airport occurred in early 1929, making it the fourth to have been built in Phoenix. Commercial services commenced there on February 23rd, 1929.

Owing to its then ‘isolated rural location,’ the airport’s website notes that, in its early years, it was nicknamed ‘the farm.’ However, in terms of its official name, it has always carried the ‘Sky Harbor’ moniker, even before the City of Phoenix purchased the airport in July 1935. According to AZ Central, ‘Sky Harbor’ was the brainchild of Scenic Airways owner J Parker Van Zandt, who moved his operation to Phoenix in 1928. Historian Michael Jones adds:

Whether the name came from a desire by Scenic to name all its airports Sky Harbor, or by the idea of a ‘harbor’ for aircraft, no one knows for sure.”

Grand Canyon Airlines
Scenic Airways still exists today as Grand Canyon Airlines. Photo: Nan Palmero via Flickr

Other languages have similar terms

Seeing an airport referred to as a ‘Sky Harbor’ is a rarity in the English language. However, elsewhere in the world, the literal translation of the word ‘airport’ does come across in a similar way. This is common in central and northern Europe, where Germanic and Scandinavian languages use the following terms that literally mean ‘air harbor.’

  • Danish, Norwegian – Lufthavn
  • Dutch – Luchthaven
  • German – Lufthafen

This may be a surprise, as ports and harbors are fairly similar concepts at face value. According to World Atlas, “a port is a commercial section on the shores of a sea with facilities such as cranes, warehouse, and docks that support trade and transport. Meanwhile, it notes that “a harbor is a place on the shores which offers storage or parking for water vessels.”

What Is The Origin Of Phoenix Airport’s ‘Sky Harbor’ Name?
Phoenix is a key hub for American Airlines. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

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Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport today

Today, Phoenix Sky Harbor plays a key role as Arizona’s busiest and largest airport. Sporting three concrete-paved runways, it is one of American Airlines’ 10 mainland US hubs. The impacts of coronavirus caused passenger traffic to fall by more than half in 2020. In any case, the 22 million passengers that it saw last year still represent a good showing.

Interestingly, Southwest Airlines had a slightly larger market share than American Airlines at Phoenix last year, despite it only being a focus city rather than a hub. It served nearly 36% of Sky Harbor’s passengers, compared to just over 32% for American. Nonetheless, it was one of the US’s fastest-growing airports this summer, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

What do you make of Phoenix Airport’s ‘Sky Harbor’ name? Have you ever flown to or from Arizona’s busiest airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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