Parking Lots Full at Philadelphia Int'l Airport

Before Eugene and Valerie Rudder flew off to Disneyland for their honeymoon recently, they had some anxious moments trying to park at Philadelphia International Airport.

"I was getting concerned that I wouldn't find a place," said Eugene, 56, of Wilmington.

The couple circled the airport economy parking lot "maybe three times" and spent 10 or 15 minutes hunting for a space as their departure time neared, he said.

That's far from the worst that drivers will face this summer as they head to Philadelphia International, sometimes trailing long lines of cars also searching for a spot.

On many days, the airport's 17,000 parking spaces are full and air passengers play a maddening game of parking-lot roulette.

"In a given week on a normal day, we've been filling the economy lot," said Linda J. Miller, facilities director for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which runs the airport garages and lots.

The "LOT FULL" signs go up. Passengers circle back toward the garages. Then, frequently, the garages fill up too, Miller says.

All the airport lots - not just the more distant economy lot served by free shuttle buses - are filling up "on a regular basis," she said, "almost every week."

"Our parking is always full," said airport spokesman Mark Pesce. "Yes, definitely, we can always use more space."

All this is happening less than four years after the Parking Authority added thousands of new spaces at the airport to cope with an earlier crunch. The authority plans 300 more spaces in the economy lot, but there are no firm plans for additional expansion.

The success of low-fare Southwest Airlines, which arrived about 13 months ago, seems to have caught the airport by surprise.

"Ridership is amazing since Southwest has been out at the airport," Miller said.

Southwest has attracted fliers - claiming the No. 2 spot at the airport behind USAirways - and it has forced USAirways and other carriers to set lower fares.

The competition has led airport officials to predict that 2005 will surpass the record 28.5 million passengers counted last year - a tally that soared, for the first time, beyond the pre-9/11 figure of 24.9 million in 2000.

The dark side of that boom?

If you ignore advice to take SEPTA or to have somebody drive you to the airport, you may run right into it on your way to park.

On Friday, for example, the "LOT FULL" signs were posted at the 5,000-space economy lot by early afternoon.

"There isn't any place to park," griped William Miller, 54, of Delaware County. "I'm parked illegally."

Heading toward the shuttle bus to the terminal for a weekend trip, he said he had no idea what would happen to his vehicle. "I'm going to find out. I've never done it before. I just hope I don't get booted."

Joe Discienza, 35, of Williamstown, N.J., said he found the economy lot open as he arrived for a flight to visit a friend in Akron, Ohio, but the problem was inside the lot.

"Just finding something - it was a nightmare," said Discienza, who said he had to drive around and around until he nailed a spot.

As soon as there's room in the economy lot, the gates reopen, but uniformed attendants don't allow drivers to linger even momentarily outside the gate.

"Sometimes, it'll just be closed," said Ron Secchiutti, 38, of Pittsgrove, N.J., returning from a three-day business trip. If the lot is full, he said, he'll "go to the short-term, pay the extra money... Can't miss your flight."

A multiple-day stay in the short-term lots, closer to the terminals, costs $38 a day. It costs $17 a day in the garages and $9 a day in the economy lot.

Prices have gone up in all the parking areas - most recently, from $8 in the economy lot earlier this year.

The heavy passenger traffic and busy parking lots are part of the reason why the Parking Authority plans to turn in $12 million more than expected to the city Aviation Division in the fiscal year that ends tomorrow - a total of $27.2 million in revenue.

That money will go into airport operating funds, not construction of more parking space. The Parking Authority also says it has trimmed operating costs since it took over management of the lots and garages last fall from a 30-year series of private operators.

Under private management, airport parking was twice the scene of major scams in which dishonest cashiers skimmed thousands of dollars from parking proceeds - most recently, leading to 17 convictions in a mid-1990s scandal.

Meanwhile, unrelated contracts at the airport have been a focus of federal prosecutors in the ongoing city corruption scandal.

The current parking problems develop, naturally enough, in the economy lot first.

"We've been filling the economy lot by Tuesday or Wednesday every week," said the Parking Authority's Miller.

Last Wednesday, for example, the economy lot was closed by 8 a.m., the garages for terminals C and D by 8:15, the garage for terminal B by 8:40 and even the last garages in line, at terminals E and F, by 11:42, Miller said.

By Thursday morning, Miller reported the lots were open again after returning travelers pulled out of their spaces.

The Parking Authority plans to add about 300 spaces to the economy lot by September, said Miller.

Parking and airport officials also are talking about adding more spaces elsewhere at the airport, possibly in the area of the terminal E and F garage. But that could require expanding or building more garage space - a time-consuming process that could take years from bond issue to completion.

Miller said surveys will be taken this summer among people who park at the airport to better pinpoint the needs.

"We understand the need for additional spaces and we're trying to work as quickly as possible," she said.