News Article - February 15, 2008

  Plans to start flights between Philadelphia International Airport and China are back on track, thanks to a cordial, almost affectionate relationship blossoming between Mayor Nutter and US Airways. After a period of testy exchanges and threats by the airline to deny the region the flights to China last fall, the new mayor and senior US Airways Group Inc. officials are talking enthusiastically about a new era of cooperation aimed at helping all airlines prosper.

   Nutter talked recently about many issues affecting the city-owned airport - the world's 10th-busiest in air traffic. The mayor said US Airways had compromised on its need for more international gates, operating with fewer this year than it would like as the airport works to build more. But that should be only a short-term problem, he said. "They may have to put a plan or two on the shelf for the overall good of the organization," Nutter said.

   Although airlines may compete vigorously with one another, "everyone has to recognize we're on the same team. When the offense and the defense have a scrimmage on the same team, it doesn't make sense for the linebacker to break the running back's leg. Great play, but you just lost your superstar." Nutter also discussed the need for a more open process for awarding airport vendor contracts, support for the airport's director, and his views on a regional airport authority and airport noise.

   US Airways plans to initiate nonstop service to Beijing, Philadelphia's first direct flights to Asia, in March 2009, and expects to have new long-range Airbus jets in its fleet by then, the mayor and airline officials said. "We are enormously enthusiastic about Mayor Nutter and the administration," C.A. Howlett, senior vice president for public affairs, said in an interview. "Our meetings have really solidified that he's keenly interested in building a partnership with us and the airport. He understands the economic role" the airport plays in the region, Howlett said.

   Nutter said he planned to form a working group of all the airlines to help him understand both short-term issues such as gate usage and "how we move together as an airport community. . . . Every carrier has ideas about what they would like to do. I need a 30,000-foot view of what all the carriers are doing. You may not always get your wish. It doesn't mean we love you any less, but there are competing interests." Acting aviation director Charles J. Isdell said he saw a more positive attitude by newly appointed US Airways managers in Philadelphia. "I've been very impressed with the team," he said. "They've been using the term partnership."

   While US Airways has more than 60 percent of the airport's traffic, it also has an unenviable reputation for late flights, lost bags and unhelpful employees. Isdell and others say the overall impression the airport makes on visitors depends largely on how US Airways performs.

On other airport-related matters, Nutter said:

  In light of the "pay-to-play" corruption investigation into how the administration of former Mayor John Street gave contracts to airport vendors, "the process for how people get to be vendors . . . must be more open, must be more transparent, and we have to restore integrity to that process as well." Isdell, a career city employee appointed by Street, continues to have Nutter's support, "with full power to do his job." Still, Nutter is likely to hire a consultant to conduct a nationwide search for a new director, according to a source close to the airlines.

   Nutter is willing to look at a proposal by a state legislator from Delaware County, where two-thirds of the city-owned airport is situated, for a regional authority to own and run it. But he said he was not sure it was a good idea because, in an authority controlled by different political jurisdictions, "it's unclear sometimes who's really in charge." He is sympathetic to Delaware County residents upset with the Federal Aviation Administration's controversial airspace redesign plan that is directing more departing airplanes over residential areas. But, he said, the city cannot control what the FAA does and, "we have an airport that's a critical component of the economic vitality of the city and the region. . . . You either continue to improve, change and grow, or you die." The tone adopted by Nutter, Isdell, and US Airways officials is a striking contrast to last year.

   US Airways threatened to give up the China route to protest a plan in the works for almost two years to move Delta Air Lines Inc. from Terminal E to Terminal A-East. Delta's move, which took place in November, saved it money and gave discounter Southwest Airlines Co. more gates in Terminal E. Southwest is now the No. 2 airline at the airport, with about 12 percent of the customers. But the move took away gates in Terminal A-East that US Airways wanted to use to increase its European flight schedule. The switch also reduced space on airport ramps for handling baggage on and off international flights.

   Suzanne Boda, appointed last month by US Airways to be its first Philadelphia-based senior vice president, said the airline would spread out its flight schedule this summer to live with the gates it has, and to work around less baggage-handling space. Last summer, flights were often late because of the need to use some gates for more than one European arrival and departure a night. "We've made some great strides in finding both short-term and medium-term solutions," said Boda, a former Northwest Airlines Corp. executive. "We're still not there yet. There's a lot of complexity to this issue."

   Robert Isom, another Northwest veteran who is US Airways' executive vice president and chief operating officer, said improvements in Philadelphia operations helped raise the airline's overall on-time performance. In December, US Airways had the best on-time record among major airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Alan Kessler, US Airways' legal representative in Philadelphia for the last seven years, who arranged a recent meeting of airline officials with Nutter, added that Isom, Boda and Robert Ciminelli, US Airways' new Philadelphia station director, "bring a new enthusiasm and an open mind. Everyone was encouraged by the tone of the meeting."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer