Off the Cuff: February 2011

Issues at the Philadelphia airport will never truly be resolved.

The City of Philadelphia has spent more than half a century trying to figure out how to run the airport, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything we’ve gotten right. To start, it was designed by an architect with no airport experience and is so hemmed in that real expansion is next to impossible. The runways were configured wrong. The terminals are long and low and dark, and we have to walk forever to get to gates. Parking is a nightmare. Unions that handle services like baggage are slow and inefficient. Long delays are the norm.

Despite all this, the FAA thinks the city should get a nice wad of cash — $5.2 -billion — to spend on improving things at the airport. Basically, the plan is to throw some dirt in the Delaware, destroy homes in Tinicum Township, build a new runway and lengthen two others.

Presto! The airport will run like a Swiss watch!

Never mind that the number of passengers using Philadelphia International will double over the next 15 years, from 30 million to 60 million. Despite that, the FAA is saying that with these fairly minor improvements, travel delays will actually decrease.

Since the 1950s, I’ve watched the city screw up whatever it tries to run, through ineptitude and graft and patronage and good old Philadelphia tradition. So forgive me, but I have no faith that a solution to our air travel woes is at hand. But here’s the real kicker: Adding one runway and lengthening two others doesn’t even address the fundamental problem of air travel to and from the city.

The real problem is that the skies above Philadelphia are too crowded with planes.

Bryan Lentz, a former Delaware County state legislator who lost his bid for Congress in November, has been pushing for years for a regional airport authority to spread air travel all over the region. He says the basic problem is quite simple: The airport runways are analogous to an on-ramp to the Schuylkill Expressway on a day when traffic is at a standstill. That’s what the Northeast corridor skies are like — they’re packed. And the only way to alleviate that congestion is to originate many more flights in the region at other airports: in Allentown, Atlantic City, Harrisburg and Wilmington.

The time is ripe, Lentz says, to push for that. He believes that governors Tom Corbett and Chris Christie have a great opportunity to create a vast regional transportation authority that could really make flying much easier. (Bonus: Smaller, corrupt entities like the Delaware River Port Authority could be abolished.) It’s such an obvious idea, on the most basic level: Two planes taking off for the Midwest from Philadelphia have to depart at staggered times, but one plane taking off from Philly and another from Atlantic City can depart simultaneously. Not to mention that if I live in Cherry Hill, I’d rather drive to A.C. than drive into the city only to sit and wait.

Decentralizing air travel out of Philadelphia has always been a nonstarter in Harrisburg because of the city’s political power to block it. But Lentz points out that with the new administration in Harrisburg, “there’s nobody from Philadelphia in charge of anything there — so Corbett has the votes to do something really significant.”

Meanwhile, we play the same old game in Philadelphia of pretending that a solution is at hand, because, after all, more money poured into Philadelphia International means more patronage. But I’m betting that, come 2025, flying out of the city will be an even greater mess than it is now.