SALT LAKE CITY — I used to love being in the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
My mind usually took me back to the summer of 1995, the moment my flight would touch down on the runway. That was my first time inside that airport. I was a nervous and excited about being in the middle of a desert some 2,341 miles from home.
Yet, the initial nervousness quickly disappeared as I fell in love with Phoenix that summer as an Arizona Republic Pulliam Fellow. So it is easy to think back on the pleasant times spent in the Phoenix area whenever inside that airport.
Sunday morning was different.
There was a little uneasiness as I went through the TSA checkpoint and proceeded to Gate A25 for my 9:20 a.m. (MST) flight. The uneasiness didn’t subside until boarding the flight bound for Salt Lake City.
You see, covering the NBA during a pandemic changed my view of Sky Harbor. It’s also changed my view of traveling, all together. Let’s just says traveling on the road this season to cover the Sixers has definitely been an experience.
I’ll never forget my trip to New York on Dec. 26 to cover the Sixers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Manhattan looked like a scene straight out of “I Am Legend.” Very few people were on the streets. The typically full-service hotel provided only two bottles of water, a clean room, and wakeup call in the morning.
Scared to eat anything from the street vendor outside of Penn Station, I went without food until checking into my Cleveland hotel on Dec. 27 for that night’s game against the Cavaliers.
Then came the trip to Orlando for the Dec. 31 game against the Magic. Down there, folks acted like COVID-19 was a hoax. I was blown away by all of the maskless people in the streets and in my hotel lobby. Playing it safe, I only left my room twice: First, to go to the game; and secondly, to head to the airport to fly back home.
But nothing can compare to the amount of connector flights one has to encounter just to cover a game.
That brings me to the Sixers’ current four-game West Coast road trip that concludes Monday night here in Salt Lake against the Jazz.
The Sixers opened up the trip against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, followed by games against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday and the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. Now, they’re here for their contest against the Jazz, who at 22-5, have the league’s best record.
Getting direct flight to most, if not all, of these destination has never been a problem before. However, the only direct flights this time were from Portland to Phoenix on Friday and Phoenix to here on Sunday.
Wednesday’s trip from Sacramento to Portland was horrible but unavoidable.
It actually took me three days to commit to purchasing my American Airlines ticket. Even after that, I pondered renting a car to take the nine-hour drive mostly up I-5 North to The City of Roses.
But I decided to take the 6:30 a.m. (PST) from the Sacramento International Airport down to Sky Harbor around 9:30 a.m. Yep, I had to go down to Phoenix to get back up to Portland. After landing in Phoenix, I spent around nine hours at the airport, waiting for a scheduled 6:50 p.m. flight to Portland.
Initially, it wasn’t a big deal.
After landing, I filed my off-day story. Then I called my father, William Pompey, while attempting to walk 10,000 steps around Terminal 4. Around 11:30 a.m., I went to a restaurant to get lunch and hang out. But shortly after ordering food, I learned the establishment was closing for the day at noon.
The bartender informed me that no more flights would arrive in that section of the airport until the evening, and that it made little sense to remain open. He went on to say the airline routes were at 40% capacity, which led to the overflow of connector flights. For that reason, the terminal was busy in the mornings, basically a ghost town during the afternoon before picking back up in the evening.
I thought about leaving the airport, before questioning where I would go due to the pandemic. Leaving the restaurant, I noticed several American Airlines employees leaving the terminal.
That ended up being the longest travel day of my career. I spent time doing expense reports for work, and I unsuccessfully tried to take several naps. All the while, becoming more and more restless. My flight didn’t board until after 7 p.m. and it appeared like an eternity to get to Portland.
Once I arrived late that night, my Uber driver said, “You picked the worst time to come here. It’s about to snow.”
And it did.
But the 20 minutes outside in the snow waiting for my Uber ride following Thursday night’s game didn’t compare to the misery I felt the day before at Sky Harbor.