Business Leaders Say Excessive Flight Delays at Phila. Int'l are Proving Costly

Mar. 4--A group of regional business leaders urged the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday to adopt a new air-traffic routing system for the Philadelphia and New York areas to alleviate chronic flight delays at Philadelphia International Airport.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's CEO Council for Growth said building airport runways -- a project that could take a decade to complete -- wouldn't be enough to reduce delays without the FAA adopting procedures to speed up flights once they leave the ground.

Philadelphia International, which handles more takeoffs and landings than any of the New York area's three major airports, has ranked last or close to it the last four years in on-time airline departures and arrivals.

Philadelphia had 535,666 flights in and out in 2005, making it the ninth-busiest airport in the United States and the world, according to statistics released this week by the Airports Council International trade group. Last year, 31.5 million passengers landed or took off here -- a record for Philadelphia.

Mark S. Schweiker, president of the chamber and chairman of the CEO Council, said at an airport news conference that the group wants the FAA to know business leaders believe flight delays are reaching unacceptable levels.

Schweiker said an efficient airport with fewer delays is vital to the region's growth. "If you can get people in and out, you're going to do more business and there's an economic reward for our residents," he said.

In a letter sent yesterday to FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey, the council writes "it is imperative that Philadelphia not be shortchanged in the allocation of routings" for air traffic.

The agency has spent six years studying how to speed up the flow of aircraft to and from Philadelphia International and four airports in the New York area: Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro, N.J.

The FAA released a preliminary report Dec. 21 that outlined four "airspace redesign" alternatives, including one that could increase flights over Delaware County by increasing from three to six the number of paths that planes follow after takeoff from Philadelphia. That alternative was endorsed by the CEO Council in its letter as "the most promising" for cutting delays.

The FAA expects to recommend one of the four alternatives next year but hasn't said when it would implement any changes, spokesman Jim Peters said.

'Unique clout'

With four airports involved, the New York area may have "unique clout" with FAA, Schweiker said.

"Today we make it clear that... we're dead set on freeing up the airspace," he said. "If that means head-to-head competition with New York, that's where we'll be."

But Peters said the political clout of one area versus another doesn't play a role in the study. The FAA is looking at ways to expand the number of air-traffic routes throughout the region so flight delays can be reduced at all five airports, he said.

There has been little public discussion in the region of the FAA's study, unlike the opposition that developed in 2004 to the airport's plan to lengthen its north-south runway to accommodate larger airplanes. The airport plans to start construction to extend the runway this year and finish in December 2007.

The FAA has scheduled four public meetings from March 27 through March 30 in Paulsboro, Wilmington, Philadelphia and Ridley Township to explain the redesign alternatives and answer questions.

The 60-member CEO Council also welcomed W. Douglas Parker, chairman and chief executive of US Airways, as its newest member and the first CEO from outside the region.

Parker has "an interest and a commitment to making it even larger and even more relevant to the economic well-being of Philadelphia," Schweiker said, referring to US Airways' hub here.

At the news conference, Parker said that US Airways would continue to invest in its hub operations at Philadelphia International. "But if we don't get this airspace issue fixed, there will be continued delays here," he said. "The result will be an airport that will not be able to compete with other airports in the United States for air traffic."

The airline, Philadelphia's largest with 62.6 percent of all passengers last year, has an adequate number of employees here and is spending $20 million on new baggage-handling equipment and other airport facilities so it can speed up its operations, Parker said.

At the same time, US Airways' need to cut its costs since it merged with America West Airlines last fall has prompted it to reduce flights on larger jets that carry 130 or more passengers and increase service on 30- to 70-seat Express regional jets and turboprop planes.

Airspace Meetings

The Federal Aviation Administration will hold four public meetings on the redesign of airspace over the Philadelphia area from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

March 27: Paulsboro High School, 662 N. Delaware St., Paulsboro.

March 28: Concord High School, 2501 Ebright Rd., Wilmington.

March 29: Holiday Inn, 900 Parker Ave., Philadelphia.

March 30: Ridley Community Center, 801 Morton Ave., Ridley Township.

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.

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