News Article - March 17, 2008

  If you're flying out of Philadelphia International Airport these days, your odds may be getting better of leaving or arriving on time. Exactly why isn't entirely clear, but the likely factors are weather, a drop in air traffic, and better airline operations. The data the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics puts on its Web site ( each month about major airports tell part of the story. As we reported on March 5, US Airways' on-time performance significantly improved in January, helping lift the airport from its traditional place near the bottom of the list to the middle of the pack.

   US Airways had an exceptionally good month here and throughout its network, a reflection perhaps of a greater focus by management on its Philadelphia operations. (We single out US Airways because it has 61 percent of the passengers and more than two-thirds of the takeoffs and landings at Philadelphia.) The weather probably played a part in the January airport numbers. Philadelphia experienced days of rain, fog and light snow during the month but had no heavy snow, freezing rain or thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service ( Airports hit by that kind of disruptive weather usually have some of the worst on-time records for any given month.

   Changes in takeoff procedures implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of its airspace-redesign plan also may be helping speed up air traffic. FAA officials say now that they are using different flight paths for aircraft leaving the airport, they are seeing a nearly 15 percent reduction in the time planes spend waiting on the runway for takeoff at certain times of the day. Opponents of the FAA airspace-redesign plan point to another factor that could be the best explanation for both departure and arrival performance improving at the Philadelphia and New York-area airports: Airlines are trimming their schedules to save money in the face of mounting fuel costs and soft demand because of the economy.

   Philadelphia had 2.7 percent fewer takeoffs and landings in January than during the same month in 2007, according to the city's Division of Aviation. The biggest decline was in the number of commuter flights. That followed an even larger reduction in commuter flights in December, a month in which airline flights using larger planes actually went up a little. Flight activity also was down in January from a year ago at Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia airports. At Kennedy, and just last week at Newark, airlines have formally agreed with the Department of Transportation to trim their schedules in an effort to improve on records that are even worse than they have been here.

   Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) has asked Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to convene a meeting with FAA, airport and airline officials to discuss similar voluntary flight reductions at Philadelphia to help reduce delays. In a letter to Peters last week, Specter cited numbers supplied by Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, indicating that airlines schedule more departures in the midmorning and late afternoon than the airport is able to handle.

   Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail said Peters would consider Specter's proposal and respond to his letter. But Turmail reiterated the Bush administration's preferred way to reduce air-traffic delays: Let congested airports use peak-hour pricing, meaning charging airlines higher landing fees at the busiest times, as an inducement to keep them from overscheduling. Airlines, however, strongly oppose the idea of peak-hour pricing. They prefer "market-based solutions," their term for letting customer demand and their own cost and revenue issues dictate how many flights they operate everywhere they fly.

   As we said, it's still not clear exactly why delays have gone down a little here. But perhaps airlines at Philadelphia may already be using the simplest of market-based solutions - scheduling fewer flights - to provide relief. In his letter, Specter also complained to Peters about the airspace-redesign plan and the additional noise that new departure paths have created over some residential areas of Delaware County. He said the department, which includes the FAA, had assured him the departure paths would be used only at times of very high traffic.

   Turmail said FAA officials expected to cooperate with Specter on holding a public hearing in the Philadelphia area on April 25 to gather more information on the issue - an event that could draw an overflow crowd.

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer