We had a rare opportunity the week before Thanksgiving to walk around Philadelphia International's Terminals A-East and A-West with airport director Charles Isdell and three of his staff members. The tour of PHL was at our request, so we could understand better how US Airways and other airlines use their airport gates - those gates that have caused so much controversy recently.
In case you missed the earlier stories, US Airways threatened to withdraw its plans to start a Philadelphia-Beijing route, starting in 2009, if the airport allowed Delta Air Lines to move into A-East gates that could be used for overseas flights. Delta moved Nov. 14. US Airways says that even without the move, it didn't have enough international gates last summer to run an efficient operation.
What we saw on the airport walkabout makes us think US Airways will be taking off after all from PHL for China in less than 18 months, using one of the long-range Airbus jets it ordered last week or a comparable leased airplane. We saw the 17 gates the airline had available last summer, which it used for an average of only 1.17 flights per day.
Another reason for our thinking is what US Airways itself has said since this dustup became public Nov. 7. The airline has told the U.S. Department of Transportation that it really likes doing business at PHL and does intend to use the China route. It said it would continue talking to city officials to work out the gate issue.
US Airways was forced to give that update to the Transportation Department in response to a small carrier, MAXjet, which filed a motion in the route-award case. Its motion, citing our stories, said that if the big airline doesn't want to go to China, the department should let it fly there from Seattle.
Our walking tour included a trip to the airport's ground-operations control tower that rises above A-East. It provides a birds-eye view of most of the airport's gates, ramps, taxiways and runways.
From the tower, Isdell and his deputies pointed out one area that we haven't mentioned much in stories, just to the west of the end of A-West, in front of a little-used cargo building. The airport says an airline could use the area to park four jumbo jets and load or unload passengers using its passenger-transport vehicles - high-level buses - if it doesn't have gates available. In a few years, the airport could demolish the cargo building and add an extension to A-West. Although US Airways says it doesn't want to unload planes away from the terminal, that alternative is there.
Isdell also noted that British Airways has one gate in A-West, which it uses for two daily round-trips to London. Those flights are scheduled so that one arrives, unloads and leaves again, followed by the second.
One more reason we think this issue is going to go away soon was US Airways' announcement Thursday that it plans to add a second flight between Philadelphia and London next spring, this one to coveted Heathrow Airport.
Why would the airline do that if it doesn't have enough gates now? The answer is simply that airlines make good money on international service and they want to offer as much as they can.
If US Airways really does want to continue building PHL as an international hub - as it told the federal regulators - then it will have to find a way to run an efficient operation here. Perhaps its inability to do that last summer was the problem all along.
We hope you're not reading this while stewing in an airport or airplane somewhere, knowing you will be late returning home from the long weekend. The Monday after Thanksgiving traditionally is almost as busy for airlines as are the Wednesday before and Sunday after, as anyone on the road today knows.