Terminal Illness

Lost baggage. No parking. Delayed flights. Perpetual lines. Oh, how we hate our airport. Here’s what needs to be done to fix it — and how to survive it in the meantime.

Everything takes forever at the Philadelphia airport. You drive around forever looking for a parking space. You stand in security lines forever. If you haven’t caught breakfast and you’re flying out of Terminal E, you stand in the Burger King line forever and a half, and run to board your flight only to sit on the tarmac forever. If you bought your ticket a few days ago and it’s not to a Southwest city, it probably took you forever to find one that wasn’t hovering around $1,000, and it’ll probably take you forever to get there because your flight connects in two cities and will probably be delayed anyway, this being Philadelphia.

All airports have issues, to be sure, but Philadelphia has a unique combination of every single possible issue an airport could have, to the point where you probably take fewer flights because of it. Corporate travel offices make fewer travel plans around here. The Convention Center gets fewer takers. A good airport can be a vital engine of economic development — Atlanta’s Hartsfield certainly has been, as have Phoenix’s Sky Harbor and Baltimore’s BWI — while a bad airport becomes a hugely symbolic microcosm of the city. (Let’s just say the New Orleans airport is generally considered more corrupt than ours, but at least it has frozen daiquiri joints in the terminals.) Philadelphia International is one of those airports only a native could love. Here’s our user’s guide.

1. You discover upon arrival that your baggage has been rerouted to Minsk.

The problem: You are attached to more worldly possessions than can fit in one carry-on and a small personal item, and US Airways, which handles about 65 percent of the passengers in and out of the Philly airport, seems to be tacitly trying to rid you of those attachments by impeding their arrival at every opportunity. Occasionally its anti-materialistic activism will leave virtually no traveler unaffected, as during the holiday season of 2004-’05, in which the airline logged 72,000 lost or damaged baggage claims, mostly in Philly. The trickle-up effect of all this can be felt in overstuffed overhead compartments and underneath seats on every flight.

Why it happens: When your baggage runs down the conveyor belt, away from your loving embrace and presumably toward the airfield, it passes a laser tag-reader that routes the bags toward the proper aircraft. Unfortunately, this laser reader reads the tags correctly only 70 percent of the time. This is because US Airways’ laser tag-readers were installed in the 1980s, and the airline, which has flirted with liquidation, has been too debt-saddled to replace them. When the laser tag-readers fail, the old-fashioned “human eye” works, but morale has been poor for the humans in question, US Airways baggage handlers, who blame the airline for chronic understaffing in Philly. Before the “Christmas meltdown,” a bankruptcy-court agreement had whittled their ranks here from 1,000 to about 900, and their starting salary down to $7.40 an hour. So many handlers called in sick that the airline actually sent eight flights into the air without any baggage at all; there was no one to load them. The person who tends to get most of the blame for the debacle — and for US Airways’ problems in Philly in general — is US Airways operations chief Al Crellin. Then, of course, there’s Milton Street, John Street’s brother, who in 2003 won the contract to maintain and service the airport’s baggage carousels even though he had no employees and no experience. He told the Daily News, “This is where I see the goose that laid the golden egg at the end of the ­rainbow.”

How to solve it: The merger of US Airways with Arizona’s America West Airlines should go a long way toward solving this problem. The old luggage tag-readers will be replaced by October, more than 300 handlers have been hired, and handlers’ pay has been raised to a whopping $9.59 an hour.

What to do in the meantime: Layer: dresses over jeans, blazers over track suits. Keep at least one soft, malleable carry-on that can be “squished” into a full overhead bin. Choose a hotel where you like the toiletries. (We adore Marriotts for their cotton swabs and conditioner.) Smaller carriers and smaller planes generally have worse records for luggage, though the DOT doesn’t regularly break out baggage statistics by airline. And finally, Zen Buddhism has helped many conquer that irrational human attachment to material possessions.

2. The closest parking space you find is at the Wachovia Center.

The problem: Even when you’re willing to pay as much as $38 a day, your terminal’s parking garage is full. Wait — every terminal’s garage is full. And the economy lot is also full. And that other lot up by the Automall is full, too.

Why it happens: There just aren’t enough spaces. Eighty-five thousand passengers fly in and out of our airport daily, and the garage has a mere 12,000 spaces. (Average stay in the garage: 1.2 days; in the economy lot: 2.7 days). The economy lot has an extra 6,190 spaces, and there are 18,000 more in the private lots scattered up and down the airport corridor. But when you use the private lots, the shuttle bus ride can tack an extra 25 minutes onto your travel time.

How to solve it: There’s talk of leveling the old Overseas Terminal on Island Avenue and using part of the space for parking.

In the meantime: Call for a limo. Companies like Car One (215-633-8600) serve the entire area, and the average one-way cost is $65 plus tip, which is a bargain just to avoid the headache.

3. You could have driven there by now.

The problem: Your flight is delayed. No reason given. Or your flight is delayed. For the foreseeable future. “Weather” is the reason given. But the sun is shining. Or you’re on board the plane, gearing up for an on-time takeoff. The plane begins accelerating toward the runway. And stops. Five minutes pass. “Well, it looked like we might be cleared for an on-time departure today, but now it seems like we’re 27th in line,” your pilot finally announces. “We’ll try to make up whatever time we can.” And then, naturally, you miss your connection in Denver/Phoenix/Atlanta/LAX, which left on time. Why do flights leave on time in other cities?

Why it happens: The number one reason for all of this is that the airport built its two major runways, in the 1960s and ’70s, a mere 1,400 feet apart — too close for two airplanes to land at the same time except in the clearest weather — and how often is that? Plus, thanks to the six major metropolitan airports between which PHL is crammed (BWI, Dulles and Reagan on the south side, Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy to the north), flying in and out of Philly is the air traffic equivalent of Two Street during the Mummers Parade, and the FAA has traditionally favored D.C. and New York over Philadelphia for airspace allotment. Then mix that with US Airways, which routes millions of connecting passengers, some from airports as close as LaGuardia and Reagan, through Philly because it’s a “hub.” The Federal Aviation Administration has identified PHL as a “pacing” airport — one that contributes to delays throughout the country. Between 2003 and 2005, Philly got 28 percent more traffic with the arrival of Southwest. Now Philadelphia regularly falls at the bottom of the Department of Transportation’s monthly list of on-time performance at major airports.

How to solve it: Billions and billions of dollars and as much as two decades will need to be spent reorganizing the Philadelphia airfield, and that’s after the airport figures out where, exactly, it will expand. Bordering a wildlife refuge filled with potentially bird-striking gulls, a shipyard with huge cranes, a wary Delaware County township known as Tinicum, I-95, the Delaware River and a UPS sorting facility, the airport is in a tough spot. (UPS, at least, is in talks to move to a new location.) But it has also suffered from years of city mismanagement and misjudgment. Former aviation director Fred Testa was backing an ambitious plan that would have largely razed the airport, so he could align the runways diagonally and put the terminals in the middle, expanding the space between runways to 5,000 feet — but when John Street became mayor, he fired Testa. Now the airport is extending one of its two shorter runways to (hopefully) make room for planes as big as 737s, and is still considering two competing multibillion-dollar plans to make room for planes to take off and land simultaneously.

In the meantime: Fly early in the morning, before the domino effect of late connections sets in. (The worst delayed flights from Philadelphia are all evening or late afternoon flights.) Scan the list of regularly delayed flights and airlines on the BTS.gov website kept by the Department of Transportation. Southwest has one of the best on-time records in Philadelphia; AirTran has the three most-delayed flights: the 325 and 331 flights to Atlanta and the 783 to Orlando. If you’re worried about connections, fly US Airways, which makes an effort to reroute passengers who miss their connections and present them with new boarding passes upon their arrival.

4. Your wife has been circling the airport since 2004.

The problem: You’re with your Uncle Jim, trying to retrieve your mother, and her flight is late, so you begin circling the airport. You try to stall for time in the lane near her arrival, but a police officer chases you away. You let Uncle Jim out of the car to wait for your mom in the airport. You merge back into traffic as the police officer mouths to you, “I’m giving you a ticket!” But you are in traffic now, so you indicate with a flustered circling motion that you will circle back around and pick up the ticket later. And by the time you circle back around, Uncle Jim is in a holding cell — the same one the airport keeps on hand for guys with C-4 in their sneakers and stuff. This actually happened to an editor of ours.

Why it happens: The high-stakes game of picking up passengers in Philadelphia is sort of a harmonic convergence of all the airport’s problems. First, there’s the fact that ours is regularly the most-delayed airport in the country; this assures that your mother won’t arrive on time, and that you — and everyone else with a mom — will be forced to circle. Because Philadelphia signage has regularly been some of the airport world’s worst, this is in and of itself an adventure. But the number of cars circling makes it downright treacherous, and in order to keep traffic moving, the police have to threaten $25 fines for stopping for too long, a task they naturally handle with patented Philly charm. You could park, of course, but oh yes, as previously mentioned, there’s no parking because the lots are all full.

How to solve it: Like a lot of Philly airport problems that have to do with space, it’s a tough one. To the airport’s credit, a “cell phone lot” opened in 2004 off the “Cargo City” exit, though it’s clear on the other side of I-95 and equipped with a mere 60 spaces — and until recently, the signs for it were too small for the human eye to read.

In the meantime: You may be better off parking on the shoulder of Route 291. You risk a ticket, but only if cops decide to nab you first out of the 50 other cars there. Or ask your passengers to catch the airport train to Eastwick and pick them up at the Eastwick R1 station, where you can sit and wait to your heart’s content.

5. Your wait to go through security is longer than your flight.

The problem: Security lines are a bitch everywhere, sure, but Philly is the worst — if you’re flying US Airways, anyway. Lines often snake over the skybridge, all lanes never seem to be open, and because not all of the terminals are connected to each other, you’ll find yourself having to go through security twice for some connections.

Why it happens: The original design of the airport envisioned far fewer passengers actually flying through Philadelphia, and not enough physical space was allotted to accommodate all the passengers who now go through C and D at rush hours. Secondly, some of the x-ray equipment is outdated, so it takes longer in those terminals than others. Thirdly, the Transportation Security Administration uses a complex formula to decide how many checkers to award to each airport, and somehow we ended up with 300 fewer staffers than Seattle, which has roughly the same number of passengers.

How to solve it: One construction project under way will connect the terminals and build a single happy, secure zone. Another construction project will add two additional lanes to security lines. And aviation director Charlie Isdell promises he’s lobbying TSA for more checkers.

In the meantime: Fly Southwest. The security lines in Terminal E are almost always unclogged and friendly.

6. You’ve been standing in line 52 minutes for a Whopper.

The problem: Philadelphia arguably has the best food in America outside of L.A. and New York. So why does getting off the plane in any other city — Manchester, Fort Lauderdale, Burbank — feel like entering the First World after enduring the Soviet bread lines of PHL? Particularly cruel is the selection in Terminal E — the terminal used by the airline that invented BYO-lunch flying, Southwest, which has a pretzel stand, a Bassett’s Original Turkey, and a Burger King with roughly the average wait time of Buddakan on a Friday night (and annual sales of $1.5 million).

Why it happens: The awarding of concession permits at city-owned transportation facilities is rarely merit-based. In Philly — where the late, controversial friend-of-Street Ron White was said to have told Marketplace Redwood, manager of PHL’s concessions, which minority applicants to award partnerships to and which to leave out — you almost have to be a friend of a friend of Street to open a pizza stand. The FAA doesn’t help this process with its recommendations that the “disadvantaged” receive special treatment in airport contracts; here, “disadvantaged” is a classification bestowed by the beleaguered Minority Business Enterprise Council that generally equates to “friends with someone who gets money for Street.” City patronage is also, as it happens, the reason Street axed experienced aviation chief Fred Testa for Charlie Isdell, an affable career city employee who told us his ideal airport would be “Milwaukee … someplace where the pace isn’t as frenetic.”

How to solve it: It’s at once the easiest and hardest thing to fix. Logistically, it’s a cinch to throw out an old Bassett’s and have a new Starbucks or Pad Thai Shack or Mexican Post move in, but it’s the process, and City Hall, that is so difficult and nontransparent. (“We like for our concessions to have a minority partner,” explains Isdell, “and Starbucks didn’t want to do that.”) Ron White’s death in 2004 ended some of the more grievous examples of corruption, but his widow, Aruby Odom-White, still owns an interest in part of the contract to run several airport bars. A state takeover of the airport — it’s been loudly trying to do this for years — might be the easiest way to improve concessions.

In the meantime: Most airlines are now offering food you can pay for, and it’s probably the best deal going. On recent flights on America West (which is in the process of merging with US Airways) and United, the $5 sandwiches were excellent. US Airways customer relations manager Anthony Mulé assures us the company doesn’t make a profit on them, so you’re getting a good value. On Southwest, we repeat: Buy food before entering the security line, especially in Terminal E.

7. And even if you’re delayed for the foreseeable future, you can’t work anyway.

The problem: Hot spots are spotty. There are 38 of them, all within the secure areas of the airport, none in A-West terminal. Also, it costs $7.95 to log on (for a 24-hour period, but that’s hardly a consolation prize if you’re actually stuck in the airport for 24 hours).

Why it happens: Philadelphia was actually one of the first airports to get wireless Internet, in fall 2003. Of course, it didn’t want to pay for it, so it awarded SBC Communications, which has since merged with AT&T, a contract to build a pay network.

How to solve it: This is tricky. The network can be upgraded, but SBC owns the contract to provide the service, which means the $7.95 price tag is sticking around. Isdell is working with SBC to make wireless access in the food court free — though if you have time to go to the food court between planes, it’s probably worth your while to pay $7.95. The network is also being expanded to accommodate A-West.

In the meantime: If you’re a Verizon wireless customer, you can get wireless Internet service over a combination of hot spot and cellular networks anywhere for $60 a month and up — worth it if you travel for work more than 7.5 days a month. And at least it’s a tax write-off.