Airlines' Fight at Philadelphia Int'l Stalls Growth

Officials at US Airways and Philadelphia International Airport are in a dispute over the best way to use airport gates.

The disagreement has delayed a year-old plan to give rival Southwest Airlines additional gates so that it can add flights here.

Those in charge of the city-owned airport want the gates to be used by an airline that would offer more year-round service to U.S. cities. But US Airways, the dominant carrier here, wants to use the gates to provide more nonstop summertime flights to Europe.

US Airways says it may not be able to expand its service to Europe over the next three years if the airport moves a third carrier, Delta Air Lines, from Terminal E to Terminal A-East, freeing up space for Southwest. But Southwest says it can't grow without getting more space in Terminal E.

None of the airlines or government officials involved could say when the dispute might be settled. City Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell, caught among the competing airlines, said he believed the airport could accommodate the needs of all three carriers. "This is the thorniest issue we've had in my time here," said Isdell, who has run the airport since 2000.

US Airways chief executive Doug Parker, in a recent interview in Philadelphia, said that if Delta moved into the A-East concourse, the airport wouldn't have enough gates available next summer to add more European service. The A-East terminal, although originally designed for international service, has been used for a mix of foreign and domestic flights since it opened in 1990.

US Airways wants to start flying next spring to Brussels, Belgium, and two other European cities that haven't been identified, industry officials said. The airline, which already has service to 16 European destinations from Philadelphia, could also start nonstop flights to six more cities in Europe -- three each in 2008 and 2009 -- if the airport has sufficient gates, Parker said.

US Airways, the airport's largest carrier with more than 60 percent of the passengers and flights, last summer occupied 85 of the airport's 120 gates for its 440 daily large-jet and commuter flights, airport officials said. But only 15 of the gates, all of them in the A-West international concourse, can be used for foreign flights, US Airways spokesman Philip Gee said.

Southwest officials say they are in even worse shape when it comes to gate space. The airline won't be able grow much beyond the 65 daily flights it has now if the airport doesn't honor an agreement made last fall for Delta to move out of the four gates it occupies in Terminal E, they said.

Southwest, using low fares and frequent flights to U.S. cities, has grown in 21/2 years to be the airport's second-largest airline, with 8 percent of the traffic. U.S. Department of Transportation data show that the average airfare paid by Philadelphia travelers on all carriers plummeted 40 percent between 2001 and 2005, mostly because of the additional flights and lower prices brought by Southwest, AirTran and other smaller airlines.

Southwest officials have said they could eventually have more than 100 flights a day here if they get more than the eight gates they have now. Southwest has four gates in the E concourse and four in the D concourse, an arrangement that officials say can be confusing to passengers and is more costly for the airline than having most of its gates in one terminal.

"We're in kind of a bind here," Herb Kelleher, Southwest's executive chairman and cofounder, said in an interview. "We've done a great deal for air service in Philadelphia, and everybody says they want Southwest to expand."

US Airways has tried to enlist support for its position from the CEO Council for Growth, a unit of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce that in the past has called for adding international service at the airport as a way to aid regional economic growth.

In a letter last week to city Commerce Director Stephanie Naidoff, the chairman of the CEO Council didn't take sides in the dispute. Rather, Mark S. Schweiker wrote that the council wanted the airport "to provide proper capacity" for all airlines.

Isdell said US Airways has rejected several ideas proposed by his staff and airport consultants to get more use out of its gates. Many of the airline's international gates now are used for four or fewer flights a day.

Moving Delta would increase airport revenue as well as help concessionaires in both Terminal E and A-East, Isdell said.

Among the ideas to resolve the dispute, Isdell said, would be to park wide-body jets several hundred yards from the terminals and use a fleet of oversize buses the airport owns to ferry passengers to and from planes. The buses can be loaded and unloaded directly from planes and from the bridges passengers normally use to board. Isdell said the vehicles were used, without complaints from passengers, from 1999 to 2004 by US Airways and others when Terminal A-East was the only one available for international flights.

Gee said that busing passengers back and forth to planes would put US Airways at a competitive disadvantage to other airlines that offer nonstop flights to Europe here and in the New York area, with no busing involved.

Isdell said one solution to the dilemma would be reconfiguring space in Terminal A-West so what is now a single gate for wide-body jets could become two gates for smaller Boeing 757 jets. The 180-seat 757 hasn't traditionally been used on transatlantic flights, but US Airways started using the aircraft last summer for some service to smaller European cities.

Two competing airlines, Delta from New York's Kennedy International Airport and Continental from Newark International Airport, are using 757s extensively so they can serve more cities in Europe, those airlines have said.

Delta was willing to move out of Terminal E, Isdell said. Last week, Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said the airline still believed that the move was good for the airport because it would provide "the best overall gate utilization."

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or .



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