News Article - September 28, 2008

By Jonathan Vit

  PHILADELPHIA The next time you're stuck at Chicago O'Hare, Dallas Fort Worth or Logan International Airport waiting for a delayed flight, the City of Brotherly Love may be to blame. The Philadelphia International Airport regularly ranks as one of the nation's most delayed airports, averaging a 10-minute delay per flight. In a single year, nearly 500,000 airplanes move some 32 million passengers through the airport, making it the 10th-busiest airport in the United States. But by Federal Aviation Administration standards, the airport is dreadfully slow. The FAA considers an average delay of five minutes to be the sign of a congested airport. At nearly double that, Philadelphia International Airport has been designated a "pacing airport," meaning that flight delays in Philadelphia often have a ripple effect on the system as a whole.

   "(The delays) you see mostly in the Northeast (are) because of the congestion in Philadelphia and New York," said Jim Peters, spokesman for the FAA. "What happens in the Northeast does affect what happens around the rest of the country." The FAA has attempted to address the region's congested airspace by instating additional flight paths or headings at Philadelphia International in an effort to get more planes off the ground faster. Since the new headings were implemented on Dec. 17, the FAA has recorded a 22 percent decline in delays at Philadelphia International Airport, said Peters.

   But other experts have found fault in the FAA's figures, explaining that they fail to address how long it takes the plane to fly from one location to another. "It is easy to say you are getting airplanes off the ground quicker," said Don Chapman, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "What the FAA is not telling you and is not measuring is, did that airplane get from Point A to Point B any faster than before the mitigated headings?" According to Chapman who works as an air traffic controller at Philadelphia International Airport the mitigated headings do little to reduce trip time. There needs to be a minimum distance of five miles between planes flying in ideal conditions.

   Since the New York/Philadelphia airspace is anything but ideal, that requirement is often tripled to 15 miles, explained Chapman. What the mitigated headings do is get planes into the air quicker, but often force the planes to fly in the opposite direction only to turn around in order to meet these requirements. "Say you are going to Miami, Florida," explained Chapman. "You would think you would fly south from the Northeast, but since I had to space you 15 miles apart, I am going to fly you 15 miles north toward New York City and then turn you around." Effective or not, the mitigated headings do nothing to change the situation on the ground.

   Philadelphia International suffers from a poor runway configuration that is too easily affected by the weather or an inexperienced staff of air traffic controllers, said experts. Built in the 1940s, the airport was not designed to handle today's larger aircraft. Two of the runways are too short to allow larger passenger jets to land. Another two have been placed too close together to allow planes to take off simultaneously in bad weather. One runway intersects with another, forcing planes to alternate takeoffs and landings.

   The FAA is currently in the process of revamping the airport's configuration. Under the airport's capacity enhancement program, there are plans to reconfigure the layout by building one new runway and extending others. Air traffic controllers argue that the project like the airspace redesign before it addresses only a portion of the problem. The administration has also failed to address the lack of experienced air traffic controllers at Philadelphia International Airport, said Chapman. Today, nearly 40 percent of the staff is still in training, and 10 to 15 percent of those out of training have only recently been certified.

   "Our workforce is greatly reduced from what it was two years ago because of the massive amounts of retirements," said Chapman. "The controllers have also worked without a contract for two years. The FAA greatly underestimated the number of retirees." Operating with such a large number of controllers in training causes the airport to move slower in order to make sure everything stays safe. "We have so many people in training right now," remarked Chapman. "It is a necessary evil because there is no other way to do it, but you can't have 40 to 50 percent of the staff doing it. It is just bad management."

   Still, without a redesign of the existing airport, delays could rise to a staggering level of nearly 20 minutes per flight by 2025, said Peters. At that rate, the airport would be considered gridlocked by FAA standards and would likely have a large negative impact on other airports nationwide. The FAA will hold a pubic meeting on the Philadelphia International Airport capacity enhancement program from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Paulsboro High School at 670 N. Delaware St. The plan's specifications are available for viewing at libraries in Greenwich and Logan townships, as well as on the airport Web site.

Source - NJ.Com