News Article - March 10, 2009

By Jacqueline L. Urgo

Inquirer Staff Writer

  EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - The plan would shift up to 50,000 commercial flights annually from Philadelphia International Airport to Atlantic City's airport - the equivalent of an extra jet taking off or landing there every eight minutes, 365 days a year, during the 18-hour flight day. On the ground, tens of thousands more people could be at the midsize regional airport each day and traveling Atlantic County roads to get there.

   Reps. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) and Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) say permanently moving routes to Atlantic City International Airport, which is 12 miles inland in Egg Harbor Township, might solve air-traffic woes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. But while officials from the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, extol the plan as an "easy button" strategy to increase business at the facility, others aren't sure.

   "We do have to question the quality-of-life ramifications for the people living in the greater Atlantic County area," said Hamilton Township Committeeman Thomas Palmentieri, whose community abuts the northwest edge of the 5,300-acre site. "We have to look at noise pollution, air pollution, safety concerns, and ground-traffic issues. You can't just immediately say this is a great idea because it might one day bring more jobs," he said.

   Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. "Sonny" McCullough applauded the notion of increased flights, but said he worried that his constituents could get stuck paying more for emergency services, such as fire and rescue. "It's not just if there's a major incident at the airport. It's the day-to-day increase in traffic accidents, heart attacks, and other medical emergencies," he said. "Since it's a state and federal facility, we receive no municipal tax ratable out of the airport, yet we have the expense of servicing it."

   The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that greater use of regional airports would not significantly reduce Philadelphia's congestion, agency spokesman Jim Peters said. He said the FAA would look at a Rowan University report that Andrews and Sestak said contradicted that finding. But the agency prefers building one additional runway at Philadelphia International, Peters said.

   Decisions about that choice and the 2007 rerouting of planes over residential areas in Andrews' and Sestak's districts - a stopgap measure the FAA would like to make permanent - could be a year away, Andrews said. It's not certain that switching some flights to Atlantic City would fly with major airlines, which were reluctant to commit to anything but commuter flights before pulling out of the airport altogether during the last 10 years.

   Secondary airports have reduced snarls elsewhere: Midway International Airport in Chicago alleviates congestion at O'Hare, and airports in Manchester, N.H., and Providence, R.I., take pressure off Boston's Logan International. But carriers make their own decisions about the cities they serve.

   Southwest Airlines has made a significant investment in marketing and gate improvements in Philadelphia, said Whitney Eichinger, a company spokeswoman. "We're not looking to revise or change our growth plan," she said. And with an 80 percent on-time arrival rate, the best at Philadelphia International, US Airways sees no reason to change, spokesman Morgan Durrant said. Andrews has hinted that the federal government could offer incentives to airlines to get them to think otherwise.

   There are about 120,000 landings and takeoffs a year at Atlantic City International, compared with Philadelphia's 500,000. Only one commercial airline, Spirit, has regular flights into Atlantic City. The rest of the flights are charters, private and corporate jets, and military. "We have to be concerned with any potential negative effects on the U.S. Coast Guard and the 177th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, which both operate out of that airport," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), whose district includes the airport.

   He supports the airport's development and helped secure $2.2 million in federal money for projects that eventually will expand its terminal from eight to at least 16 gates and allow more international flights. Andrews and Sestak said the FAA's $840 million runway proposal would reduce flight delays at Philadelphia International by only three minutes and increase air traffic to unacceptable levels over parts of Gloucester and Delaware Counties. "It's an enormous amount of money, but adds virtually nothing to help with the problem," Andrews said.

   Their contentions are based on the Rowan study, which suggests that flight delays caused by congestion could be cut by up to 14 minutes by moving routes to Atlantic City; Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing, N.J.; Lehigh Valley International near Allentown; or New Castle Airport, outside Wilmington. The report, by math professor Chris Lacke, took into account studies by the FAA, Rutgers University, and the South Jersey Transportation Authority. It concluded that Atlantic City was the best choice because of its proximity to relatively uncongested roads, such as the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway.

   But there needs to be rail access between the airport and travelers' destinations, said Lacke, who envisions links to locations as far away as New York. Trains now run from Atlantic City to New York and Philadelphia, but only a few times a day. None goes to the airport. The goal, Lacke said, was to "start looking at other parts of the infrastructure and creating links to make this a real transit system."

   Atlantic City could take on 50,000 new flights almost immediately, said Sharon Gordon, director of communications and marketing for the South Jersey Transportation Authority. The initial cost would be about $1 million a year for more security, she said. "We think this plan is wonderful," Gordon said. "It supports our efforts over the past decade to increase flight operations. . . . Adding 50,000 flights a year would be like hitting the easy button for us."

   While many holding patterns used by planes waiting to land at Philadelphia International are over neighborhoods, she said, noise and other concerns raised by those who live near airports are minimal in Atlantic County. "Most of the flight path for Atlantic City is over the ocean."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer