Signs of Confusion Abound at Philadelphia Airport

If you're a passenger arriving at Terminal F at Philadelphia International Airport, where should you go to be picked up by friends or relatives?

The correct answer is Terminal E.

But you'd never know that from the signs at the airport - a problem airport management promises to fix within three months.

Terminal F is the only one at the airport with the baggage-claim area adjacent to the departures roadway rather than the road for arrivals. At the departure point, passengers can be dropped off but can't be picked up - at least not legally - by buses, vans, taxis or private vehicles.

When Terminal F was built six years ago, there was no room for a separate bag-claim building on the arrivals road, similar to the other five terminals.

The result: Passengers arriving at Terminal F need to take an escalator or elevator up one floor and use a bridge over the departures road to the pickup zone outside the Terminal E baggage-claim building.

But the current signs at Terminal F, airport officials acknowledge, are inadequate or confusing. So many passengers simply head straight from baggage claim outside to the departure road, thinking they're in the right place for ground transportation.

The problem is compounded because the highway signs outside direct those picking up passengers to the right place - outside Terminal E's baggage claim area.

Cell-phone disputes between passengers and their friends or relatives over who is in the right spot are the inevitable result, according to passengers who've made the mistake and police officers stationed at the terminal who hear the arguments.

Philadelphia retiree Shaun Bennett, who has flown into Terminal F four times recently, said he has watched with concern as families with small children, laden with bags, take the most direct route to reach the Terminal E pickup zone: They dodge traffic as they scurry across the five-lane departures road. He suggested the airport needs signs along the departures road curb.

"It isn't apparent until someone gets on their cell phone and learns they're in the wrong place, and then the word may spread among those waiting," Bennett said. "It would be easy to put a couple of signs there, but they don't. It's a situation made for disaster."

Airport chief of staff Jeff Shull, in an interview near the Terminal F bag-claim area, pointed out the half-dozen signs put up over the last two years that try to send passengers in the right direction to ground transportation.

But, he said, some of the signs simply add to the bewilderment or are in places where those leaving the Terminal F baggage-claim area don't notice them.

Shull said the unique layout of Terminal F, with baggage claim adjacent to the US Airways Express ticket counter, adds to confusion. Travelers who don't need to go to baggage claim seem to find their way over the bridge to Terminal E more often than those with checked bags, Shull said.

The number of passengers waiting in the wrong place has grown worse this year because US Airways has increased the number of flights originating or ending in Philadelphia operated by its Express subsidiaries that use Terminal F, Shull added. The number of passengers using the terminal increased 31 percent in the first four months of the year, compared to 2004, while the airport's total passenger count rose 21 percent.

Shull said he was "pretty confident" that the problem can be fixed with new signs inside Terminal F.

"It's high on our priority list," he said. "We don't want people to be confused."