ANALYSIS: International opportunities emerge for Phoenix

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Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport's location is both a benefit and a disadvantage to its air service.

Located about 321nm (595km) from Los Angeles and the Pacific coast, it has served as an ideal into-the-west connecting hub for a number of US domestic airlines over the decades. Hughes Airwest operated a hub at the airport in the 1970s, and both America West Airlines and Southwest Airlines used it as a jumping off point to connect east-west traffic into California in the 1980s. Today, Southwest and US Airways - following its merger with America West in 2005 - operate large domestic hubs at the airport.

Sky Harbor, one could say, is a darling of deregulation - booming as a US domestic hub since the act was signed into law in 1978.

International service has lagged. Other than flights to Canada and Mexico, Phoenix is and remains a secondary airport for long-haul international service to the west's traditional international gateways at Los Angeles and San Francisco. Flights are limited to British Airways nonstop London, which it has flown since 1996, and Lufthansa's short-lived Frankfurt nonstop from 2001 and 2004.

International routes from Phoenix, April 2013

Innovata FlightMaps Analytics

Phoenix's location in the northern Sonoran desert, with average temperatures exceeding 38°C (100°F) for more than 100 days every year, at 340m above sea level has also impacted international service

Andrew Nocella, senior vice-president of marketing and planning at Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways, says flights to Tokyo are economically viable with the airline's Airbus A330-200s based on its internal analysis, at a media event in Tempe on 24 April. The outbound flight to Japan would have to operate with some restrictions but the return flight would be able to fly without restrictions for most of the year, he says.

Despite this, US Airways does not offer service between Phoenix and Tokyo. A lack of available aircraft - it only has seven A330-200s in its fleet and the service would require two dedicated aircraft - and the start-up and operational costs associated with just one flight in the market are understood to have deterred the carrier from launching the route.

"We want more nonstop service to places where there is demand," says Deborah Ostreicher, deputy aviation director at Sky Harbor, on the sidelines of the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium on 25 April.

Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Tokyo as well as an additional flight to London are all markets where the airport sees demand for nonstop service, she says. In addition, she says that some of Sky Harbor's strongest growth is to Latin America and the airport would like to see more service to the region.

International traffic was up more than 25% to 2.19 million passengers during the five years through 2012 despite the lack of long-haul growth, according to airport data. This compares to a 5.5% decrease in domestic traffic over the same period.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Phoenix may now begin gaining some of the appeal for international service that it boasts as a domestic hub.

The entry-into-service of the Boeing 787 and US Airways proposed merger with American Airlines could open a lot of doors for Sky Harbor. The 787 could fly many long-haul flights - including to Tokyo - without the restrictions that current generation aircraft face, while the merger means more aircraft and new alliance partners that are not available under a standalone alternative for US Airways.

"The 787 is the right type of airplane for a Oneworld airline to serve Asia from here," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, on the sidelines of the Phoenix symposium. He says that the question really is what the strategy of the combined American-US Airways is and the local market.

US Airways will join the Oneworld alliance after the merger closes, which is expected in the third quarter.

Ostreicher says that operationally all of the routes she listed are possible with today's aircraft, citing the airport's 3,502m runway 8/26. However, she agrees that the next generation in aircraft, including the Airbus A350 and 787, will make more nonstops possible.

The proposed American-US Airways merger creates a huge amount of possibility, but offers few guarantees. Nocella says that there are no specific plans for international service from Phoenix after the merger but that it would create many opportunities for the hub. He cites the combined fleet and networks.

US Airways brings the Phoenix hub and American a large, established international operation to the table through the merger. American's network includes a station in Tokyo and across Latin America, including places like Lima and Sao Paulo.

The airlines have said that they will keep all of their hubs.

On the fleet side, American and US Airways had combined 148 widebody aircraft with an additional 62 on order at the end of March. The orderbook includes 42 787s.

Ostreicher says that the airport is targeting Oneworld carriers for international service. Japan Airlines (JAL) to Tokyo and the post-merger American for a new nonstop are at the top of the list, she says. However, she quickly adds that the airport is open to any carrier that is interested in serving the airport.

"As a Oneworld hub city, airlines are open to options now that were not viable with US Airways standalone," says Harteveldt.

Mergers and aircraft have not always worked out well for every hub. Delta Air Lines launched Salt Lake City International's first nonstop service to Asia with a flight to Tokyo Narita in June 2009 following its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines. The route ended in October 2011 after operating on a seasonal basis for two years. While Tokyo did not work out, the airline continues to fly nonstop to Paris Charles de Gaulle, which began in June 2008, today.

United Airlines is on the verge of testing its new 787 between Denver and Tokyo. Flights begin on 10 June on a route that Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of the Chicago-based carrier, has said is not economically viable with the airline's existing fleet of Boeing 777s. Only time will tell how the route performs with the next generation Boeing widebody.

Denver, much like Phoenix, has long been primarily a domestic hub. United flies to Canada and Mexico from the airport but seasonal flights to London Heathrow that operated from 2008 to 2010 were discontinued due to lacklustre financial performance. British Airways and Lufthansa offer the airport's only nonstops to Europe.

Phoenix is in much the same position as Denver - only time will tell whether it is about to find its place in the international sun or not.