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Philadelphia's Airport Mess

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US Airways landed in a mess at Philadelphia Airport

Sunday, January 30, 2005

By Dan Fitzpatrick, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Fred Testa had a feeling that Philadelphia might haunt US Airways.

The former director of the Philadelphia International Airport had witnessed first-hand the delays, bureaucracy, irate passengers and unhappy employees while there in 1999 and 2000. It was only a matter of time, he thought, until the airport's weaknesses punctured the operations of the nation's seventh-largest carrier.

His fears became reality over the Christmas weekend, when a combination of bad weather, sick employees and understaffing led to hundreds of US Airways flight delays, thousands of lost bags and countless angry holiday travelers.

The fiasco has observers wondering if it was a mistake for the airline to shift so many flights to the delay-prone, geographically constrained, city-owned-and-operated airport from Pittsburgh International, a much roomier facility that operates more independently and once was the airline's largest hub.

"US Airways has, by doing what they have done, really asked the Philadelphia hub to perform at levels it has never performed at before," said local airline analyst Bill Lauer.

The strategy of building up Philadelphia at the expense of Pittsburgh over the last few years is a reversal of the strategy US Airways and its predecessors used in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when the airline was a niche carrier to towns in the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains and Pittsburgh had more flights than any other city in its system.

The major Philadelphia buildup didn't begin until the mid-to-late '90s under then-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Wolf. He was attracted by the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area that he felt was underserved and by Philadelphia's possibilities as a gateway for the international flights that he wanted to add to the carrier's lineup.

The growth continued under new leadership, which perceived Pittsburgh as the weaker city that generated less traffic, an outpost for a route network that was shifting more toward the Eastern seaboard and Caribbean. US Airways now operates 459 daily flights out of Philadelphia, double the number that it operates in Pittsburgh, and two-thirds of the gates at the Philadelphia airport.

But for all the demographics and strategic reasons that made the Philadelphia move a sensible one, the danger all along has been the airport itself -- a cramped, unpredictable place that was not built for hub operations.

Testa, who now runs the Harrisburg International Airport, along with airline employees and former US Airways executives familiar with Philadelphia's operations all said the Christmas meltdown could happen again -- at any time. US Airways and the city of Philadelphia have known about the danger for years, they say, but have done little to solve the facility's long-term structural problems.

US Airways says that it has been aware of the problems in Philadelphia for a while and has been working to address understaffing issues and to boost operational efficiency by spreading out arrival and departure times so planes do not arrive in clumps. It also was part of a recent redesign of concourses B and C, and is trying to use a small, little-used runway whenever possible to free up congestion.

But a former US Airways executive familiar with the Philadelphia operations said the changes being made are mere pinpricks that will not solve the larger structural issues. "That place has been bursting at the seams for years," the former executive said. "At some point, the straw will break the camel's back."

The Philadelphia airport is serving more passengers and planes than any time in its history. With US Airways increasing its number of daily flights and discount rival Southwest Airlines starting service there last May, Philadelphia International last year shattered its previous passenger record by about 3 million.

The increased flights have been a boon for US Airways in many ways, none more notably than on its balance sheet. Because so much of the traffic at the Philadelphia airport is local, the airport generated $1.25 billion of revenue for the airline the first nine months of last year, nearly twice what was generated in Pittsburgh ($655 million) and about $500 million more than in the Charlotte hub, according to research firm Eclat Consulting.

But the increased flights also have brought increased headaches, particularly in the form of delays, with Philadelphia ranking as the nation's second-worst airport for on-time departures and fifth-worst for on-time arrivals through November of last year.

Built in 1940 on what was a World War I shipyard, Philadelphia International is a clogged facility, with the two main runways too close together to operate simultaneously during inclement weather.

Jet taxiways go in only one direction, jet alleyways are too narrow and many passenger-holding rooms are too small. In bad weather, the airport goes into "cardiac arrest," Testa said.

What's worse, a 5,000-foot commuter runway conceived in the 1980s and finished in 1999 is now unusable by smaller carriers who are trading in their smaller turbo-props for larger regional jets. The RJs need a longer runway to take off and land.

Attempts to extend the runway another 2,000 feet were nixed because of its proximity to the Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard, a project built with $429 million in city, state and federal funds and supported by then-Gov. Tom Ridge and then-Mayor Ed Rendell.

In a perfect world, US Airways would love to have Philadelphia's population feeding into Pittsburgh's wide-open, convenient, efficiently operated airport.

Part of Philadelphia's problem is that it was never designed to be a hub, as Pittsburgh International was. Instead it has been jury-rigged over time.

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US Airways began building a hub presence there in the late 1980s, taking over gates from the defunct Eastern Airlines and Midway Airlines.

Wolf, who came to US Airways in early 1996, accelerated the shift, making the airport an trans-Atlantic hub for international flights in 1997 -- the same year Philadelphia surpassed Pittsburgh in passenger traffic for the first time.

A new baggage system was installed, replacing an antiquated get-up that needed duct tape to hold it together, and a $550 million, 13-gate international terminal for US Airways opened in 2003.

But Testa and others say the international terminal only added to the airport's congestion problems because it added capacity for passengers without addressing the more fundamental issue of expanding the runway capacity to handle all the added flights.

Testa came up with a plan that would have reconfigured the runways so they could operate independently, as those in Pittsburgh do, but he was never able to complete that expensive task before being ousted by Mayor John Street a few months after Street took office.

A new master plan is being developed by the current airport director, but is likely to take years to approve -- if at all. Testa said the city's ownership of the airport -- compared with the independent airport authority that controls Pittsburgh International -- slows decision making and contributes to the inertia. "Someone should think beyond their nose," he said.

"That has always been the problem in Philadelphia. They lack the ability to see beyond tomorrow," he said. "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, no matter how much perfume you stick on the sow's ear. A pig is a pig is a pig."

Another problem plaguing US Airways in Philadelphia is a strained relationship between management and labor. Always tense, that relationship has gotten worse in recent years as the company cut costs through two bankruptcies.

Employees who work on the ramp in Philadelphia claim they do not have enough equipment to do their jobs and the company hired too few workers to handle the required tasks, thus forcing some employees to work mandatory overtime.

Airline Vice President Sherry Groff admitted to the shortages in a memo sent out a few days before the Christmas holiday meltdown, and noted that catering might suffer on certain flights because those workers were needed to cover gaps elsewhere in the operation.

The airline was short about 150 to 200 ramp workers needed to maintain normal operations. "We continue to face significant challenges in keeping pace with our growth," Groff wrote in her Dec. 22 memo.

The worker shortages, exacerbated by employees who called in sick and a spell of bad weather, converged on Christmas to produce what airline Chief Executive Officer Bruce Lakefield called an "operational meltdown."

But it's a tough sell. "They can't get people to work there," said Roger Burns, one of the employees who called in sick over Christmas. "The morale is the worst I have seen in 20 years."

Burns, who retired on New Year's Eve, recalled a Saturday night before he left, when 13 Caribbean flights came in over a two-hour period with only 12 people staffed to work the 13 flights.

"There are not enough people to do the work," he said. "People get fed up."

http://www.pittsburghfirst.com/pg/05030/449585.stm

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Sounds like a bunch of crying wolf, if you ask me. People have been saying that Philadelphia Intl. can not handle more traffic for years and yet it keeps on accomodating more traffic. Also, you have much busier airports like Narita in Tokyo which make do with just one runway. I tend to think that where there is a will there's a way. Clearly Philadelphia is US Airways' largest hub/focus market so I don't see them shifting flights back to Pittsburgh. If worse comes to worse, they can simpyl readjust their schedules. Studies have shown that much of the problem with Philadelphia is that many of US Airways' palnes come in and go out togehter in packs - especially the international traffic. The studies show that congestion would be significantly reduced if they readjust thier schedules. Currently there's no incentive to do so since - no matter what - traffic does flow. If the congestion gets severe enough, they will like readjust.

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^^ Philly has done a good job responding to some of those crunches but a lot more could be done. The situation is not unique, I know LAX, Reagan National and other airport have stretched their capacity in recent years. Compounding the lack of capacity at Philly is the labor rumblings and the weather that can make the capacity problem seem very accute. Philly does a good job with what they have and their leadership is great in the day-to-day operations. Delay numbers don't lie though and Philly gaining "hub status" in the last 7 years when the airport was designed for much less is always going to be a stumbling block for it until the powers that be can come up with a long term solution. Having flown out of both airports Pittsburgh has earned its #1 ranking from JD Power and Conde Nast, Philadelphia does a fantastic job with what it has but infrastructure improvements for landings is needed IMHO. Interested in hearing other views on this.

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^^ Philly has done a good job responding to some of those crunches but a lot more could be done.  The situation is not unique, I know LAX, Reagan National and other airport have stretched their capacity in recent years.  Compounding the lack of capacity at Philly is the labor rumblings and the weather that can make the capacity problem seem very accute.  Philly does a good job with what they have and their leadership is great in the day-to-day operations.  Delay numbers don't lie though and Philly gaining "hub status" in the last 7 years when the airport was designed for much less is always going to be a stumbling block for it until the powers that be can come up with a long term solution.  Having flown out of both airports Pittsburgh has earned its #1 ranking from JD Power and Conde Nast, Philadelphia does a fantastic job with what it has but infrastructure improvements for landings is needed IMHO.  Interested in hearing other views on this.

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Give me an overcrowded busy and bustling airport with inter-continental service over a spacious but underutilized airport with North American service only anyday. I can think of a gazillion airports better than Philadelphia International but if the service isn't there to match then the airport is a failure in my book. Pittsburgh has a great design but it needs the planes.

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Well the point of your statement I think we can all agree with. It really boils down to what do you like about an Airport. The best of both worlds would be high traffic and high demand in an O'Hare or JFK type airport with the capacity at the gates and runways. I think the question going forward in Philadelphia is if year after year of traffic increasing by multiples will be a net positive for the airport--in essence if the city and the airport can expand as rapidly as the traffic is. The key concern is the same that LAX is going through, the airport was never built to handle 2/3 the traffic it is currently--and there is more demand out there. It will be interesting to see what develops in the next few years especially with USAirways being a financial wildcard.

A quick aside, Pittsburgh International like many metros is having to compete with smaller suburban airports (Palmer Airport to the east), why not open up North Philadelphia airport to traffic in the same way Southwest runs Chicago Midway and Houston Hobby--those metros "other" airports? I have been told Philly North doesn't have passenger traffic, but looking at a map of the city it is almost (though not quite) as large in landmass as Philly International. Wondering why the city wouldn't make it the new Midway or Hobby or Orlando-Sanford Regional etc.

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Well the point of your statement I think we can all agree with.  It really boils down to what do you like about an Airport.  The best of both worlds would be high traffic and high demand in an O'Hare or JFK type airport with the capacity at the gates and runways.  I think the question going forward in Philadelphia is if year after year of traffic increasing by multiples will be a net positive for the airport--in essence if the city and the airport can expand as rapidly as the traffic is.  The key concern is the same that LAX is going through, the airport was never built to handle 2/3 the traffic it is currently--and there is more demand out there.  It will be interesting to see what develops in the next few years especially with USAirways being a financial wildcard. 

I might be going out on a limb but I think US Airways will be around. The experts are saying that with the new government assistance they got they'll be able to limp by. Assuming they stick around, I suspect they will centralize more and more traffic in Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Ft. Lauderdale. Most likely, many of their Carribean flights will be shifted to Ft. Lauderdale, thus freeing up some room in Philadelphia. I don't think gates is the problem. They have plenty of gates at Philadelphia International. The flights out of the International Terminal tend to leave in packs - morning for Carribean and Latin America and late afternoon/evening for Europe. In between, those gates are open and I think US Airways can use them if they want but they don't because they have enough space in their domestic terminal gates. The problem is more with runways. As I stated before, they can deal with this by rolling their schedule more so that flights don't all leave in packs.

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A quick aside, Pittsburgh International like many metros is having to compete with smaller suburban airports (Palmer Airport to the east), why not open up North Philadelphia airport to traffic in the same way Southwest runs Chicago Midway and Houston Hobby--those metros "other" airports?  I have been told Philly North doesn't have passenger traffic, but looking at a map of the city it is almost (though not quite) as large in landmass as Philly International.  Wondering why the city wouldn't make it the new Midway or Hobby or Orlando-Sanford Regional etc.

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North Philadelphia is now called Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE). I suspect one of the main reasons it isn't like Hobby or Midway (or LaGuardia or Reagan for that matter) is because, unlike those airports, it was never a true commercial airport to begin with. All those airports use to be the primary airport for the respective markets and then when a enwer bigger facility was built they just kept the old one - probably because some airlines liked the convenience of operating out of the old one (closer into the city) and didn't want to pay fees to use the new ones. PNE doesn't have that type of audience. In years past, it was used by TWA Express but, of course, that's defunct. If anything, the "second airport" for SE PA is the Lehigh Valley airport since its about an hour away from many of Philadelphia's northern suburbs. Southwest was actually planning on flying there before it chose Philadelphia.

If anyone is going to open up PNE, it will probably be Southwest since it surely won't be US Airways (they will opt to keep all ops centralized) and none of the other airlines have a big enough presence to justify going off on their own. United will want to stay so they can hook up with US Airways' system and Delta will want to stay, for anything, the fact that Philadelphia is one of their links to Air France. Plus I don't see those network carriers going to a secondary airport. It all depends upon how much Southwest will grow its presence in Philadelphia. Since PNE and PHL are run by the same authority and since Southwest is not a partner to any of the network carriers at PHL, there would probably be no objection to them moving to PNE. Plus, a move to PNE will allow them to better capture the Central and North Jersey markets (currently not served by Southwest).

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Forgot about Lehigh Valley, from what I've heard they have a pretty good airport there.

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I've decided that its time for me to visit the wonderful city of Philly again (I last visited in 1999 & 2000). This time I plan of flying up in September. Does the subway connect to the airport? It would be really cool if I could get around town, without having to rent a car or get a taxi.

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I've decided that its time for me to visit the wonderful city of Philly again (I last visited in 1999 & 2000).  This time I plan of flying up in September.  Does the subway connect to the airport?  It would be really cool if I could get around town, without having to rent a car or get a taxi.

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You can catch the R1 airport line (regional Rail) to 30th street station. From there you can hope on the subway across the street or stay on the R1 to Suburban station. At suburban station, you can catch the subway's green line, blue line or orange line. Also, you can take a taxi from the airport to center city for a $20 flat rate. If you know where you're staying I can tell you what subway line to take. Keep in mind philly's subway is very old and confusing. It's undergoing renovations but is still confusing and dirty to most people. For some reason it's also why it appeals to me.

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Thanks. I haven't figured out where I'm staying yet, but it will be in downtown at a Marriott Chain hotel, since I get discounts there. What's the regular rates for Philly's system? Is it comparable to DC's metro?

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I've decided that its time for me to visit the wonderful city of Philly again (I last visited in 1999 & 2000).  This time I plan of flying up in September.  Does the subway connect to the airport?  It would be really cool if I could get around town, without having to rent a car or get a taxi.

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You can easily get around Philadelphia using public transit. Most of everything you will want to see will be in walking distance to the Marriott. Unfortautenly, the area right around your hotel is not very interesting (its got the typical tourist trash like the Hard Rock). I'd recommend that you walk over the Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, Chinatown, Old City, South Street, Queen Village, etc. The Italian Market may be a little stretch but its doable. Also around that area are many Asian and Mexican restaurants, supermarkets, etc. For University City, take the Blue line to 34th Street Station and walk several blocks south to Walnut. For Chestnut Hill, take the R8 commuter train to the end of the line. You can catch it from Market East station which is near your hotel.

To get to your hotel from the Airport, take the R1 commuter train right from the airport and get off at Market East station (it leaves every 30 minutes). Its about $6 each way.

The subway isn't extensive like the New York one nor is it as regional as the DC one. If you want to explore the suburbs (I'd recommend the Main Line and Swarthmore), then you should take the commuter train (known in Philadelphia as "regional rails). The schedules are about 30-60 minutes between trains.

As for the subway, you really won't have much of a need for it since, as I said, much of what you'd want to see is in walking distance of your hotel.

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Good to hear your coming. You'll have a great time. Especially if your bringing your girlfriend or someone to hang with. the weather is getting really nice now.

In addition to what urbanophile said I'd add University City to that list. It's quickly turning into one of the best neighborhoods in the country. You can catch the green line (trolley, yep west philly still has trolley service) and be there in 5 minutes. If you go to phillyblog.com and check out the photos thread you'll see some awesome pictures of Cedar Park, UC and Powelton Village.

Also check out 11th and washington (my hood). Take the broad street line to Federal, walk east to 11th street. Two blocks north is washigton. From this corner you can throw a rock and hit 10 different types of resturaunts. Thai, French, Loas, Mexican, Korean, Veitnamese, Chinese, Italian, American, greek etc. All very authentic. Plus the Italian market is down at 9th and washington.

IMO, steer clear of the tourist trap independence park. Nice stuff but not really a urban experience. Really, it's just a bell, man. Also, the dali exibit is at the art museum for a few more weeks. It's only stop in the U.S. And the Museum should be a must anyway. Oh and hit south street, it's bit much but a good experience.

After all this, we'll discuss where you should move after falling in love with this town. :lol:

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