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News Article - November 03, 2008

WINGING IT: PHILADELPHIA AIRPORT AVOIDING ECONOMIC TURBULENCE  
By Tom Belden

  With the economy in recession, travel slowing down and airlines eliminating flights and jobs, it's natural to worry how Philadelphia International Airport may be affected. Unlike most public transportation services, PHL and other airports usually generate enough revenue - from airline landing fees and rent, retail sales, parking and passenger facility fees - that local, nonflying taxpayers don't need to help keep the lights on. All American taxpayers do pay a portion of the cost of airport security, air-traffic control and building or maintaining runways, so it's not accurate to say, as some airline folks do, that commercial aviation pays for itself completely.

   But a report in the New York Times last week that I posted on the "Winging It" blog (http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/wingingit/) prompted me to look back at developments here in recent years that should alleviate concern that our airport will be the next to need a bailout. The story pointed out that around the country, airline flight cuts have left several major airports, including Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and St. Louis, paying for runway or terminal expansion projects that are now (or could be) significantly underutilized.

   In Philadelphia, the region's large population provides a healthy mix of business and leisure travelers that for years has made local officials confident that traffic will grow or remain steady, and airlines won't abandon the airport. The traffic base is one pillar supporting Delta's declaration last week that its merger with Northwest will mean no workforce layoffs or flight reductions here - at least not yet.

   Among the most encouraging signs that Philadelphia's airport won't need rescuing are the plans of US Airways, which has almost two-thirds of the traffic, and Southwest, the No. 2 carrier with 12 percent. US Airways has almost as many daily domestic departures here as it did last year, and it is eager to continue expanding its international service. That's a contrast to flight cuts it made at Las Vegas this year and Pittsburgh before that.

   US Airways is even growing a little here, despite the economic turbulence. It plans to add three overseas destinations - Birmingham, England; Oslo, Norway; and Tel Aviv, Israel - next summer, giving it 23 daily departures across the Atlantic. Southwest's growth in flights and passengers since it came to Philadelphia 41/2 years ago helped push the airport to build a common security checkpoint for the D and E terminals that is scheduled to open next month. Additional shops and eateries will open between the two concourses. For the first time, it will be possible to go from Terminal A-West to E without leaving the secured area.

   The new checkpoint, which I toured last month while it was under construction, has a half-dozen lanes and looks as if it could be even more efficient than the big one in Terminal A-East. The facilities reminded me of the checkpoints that have been installed since 9/11 in newer terminals at other airports that had the space for multiple lanes. It should cut down on waiting times at D and E, which often have the longest lines. In surveys I've seen, business travelers say that on-time performance and waiting time at security influence them more than any other factors in their satisfaction rating for an airport.

   Southwest, after years of strong growth, has trimmed its flight schedules for next year but still believes it has a good future at the airport, enough to lend its support to the next construction project, which will add gates in Terminal E. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the airport's future is US Airways' improvement in its operations, which has given at least some travelers who had abandoned PHL in recent years a reason to try it again.

   What's more, US Airways' Philly-based managers and city officials, led by airport director Charles J. Isdell, now offer praise at every opportunity for supporting one another and creating a cooperative spirit. Since Mayor Nutter took office, gone is the acrimony that characterized the city-US Airways relationship last year, when the airline complained it didn't have enough international gates. US Airways did its best to prevent Delta from moving to A-East, saying it couldn't run an efficient summer 2007 operation in A-East and A-West because it was already short of gates.

   With the same number of gates but new US Airways management in place this summer, the complaints somehow magically evaporated. On occasion at the peak of the travel season, the airline even used the airport's fleet of oversized, high-level buses to haul international passengers to and from planes parked on the tarmac when no gate was available. Last year, US Airways characterized busing its customers as something only done at third-world airports and vowed to never do it. But if any travelers agree with that and have sworn off using the airline after riding one of the buses, they haven't told me about it. If you have any opinions about the airport and its future, please let me know. Email

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer



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