Fewer flight delays - and an increase in airline traffic over neighborhoods on both sides of the Delaware River - are on their way with a decision announced yesterday that will let Philadelphia International Airport add more than 1,000 feet to one of its runways.
The runway extension project is the first step in what airport officials hope will be 10 or 15 years of work to reconfigure landing strips and taxiways to help alleviate a chronic problem of late departures and arrivals. The $36 million runway extension is scheduled for completion in about two years.
Through February, according to the latest data available, only 64 percent of airline flights left Philadelphia on time this year, putting it last among the 31 largest U.S. airports. In 2004, Philadelphia ranked 29th, with 77 percent of flights departing on time.
The Federal Aviation Administration, completing almost two years of study, gave final approval for the city-owned airport to extend its 5,500-foot Runway 17-35 by 640 feet to the north and 400 feet to the south. The FAA will pay about 80 percent of the cost, mostly using revenue from airline ticket taxes. The airport will pay the rest through charges to airlines and passengers.
With the added length, the runway can be used more frequently by jets as large as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, which now mostly use the airport's two longer, east-west runways. The north-south runway is used almost exclusively by smaller planes.
The project faces opposition from residents and some elected officials in Delaware, Montgomery and Gloucester Counties who say it will mean more large jets flying at lower altitudes over their neighborhoods.
The Coalition of Communities Against Runway 17-35 Extension said in a statement that it would ask members of Congress from the region to adopt legislation limiting the runway to smaller aircraft. Such legislation would defeat the purpose of a runway extension.
The FAA determined in an environmental impact statement issued March 2 that the project would have a limited adverse effect on noise levels and air quality near the airport.
The FAA said that with the extension, the runway would be able to handle an additional 120 takeoffs and landings a day.
"We think this will help us reduce delays and increase capacity in the short term while we are working on longer-term solutions," city Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell said in an interview.
Isdell said it was "unfortunate" that the FAA's environmental impact statement presented the anticipated reductions in delays as an average of only a minute and 20 seconds per flight - a figure opponents seized on to criticize the project. That is a round-the-clock average for all 528,000 takeoffs and landings the airport expects to handle in 2007, he said.
Having another runway available for larger jets will have a far greater impact per flight at the peak morning and evening travel times, Isdell said.
In its environmental impact statement, the FAA said extending the runway to the north would require rerouting a portion of Pennsylvania Route 291, along the northern border of the airport, onto Bartram Avenue.
The statement said noise from jets approaching the airport from the north or south would increase only minimally over the levels normally heard in suburban neighborhoods.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) criticized the FAA's decision in a statement, saying it was "a short-term solution that does not address the long-term problems of flight delays at the airport." Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) made the same point in a statement.
Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.) reiterated his opposition to the runway extension in a letter sent yesterday to FAA administrator Marion Blakey. He said it "defies logic" that aircraft noise would not increase much.
Andrews urged the FAA to study construction of a new, longer runway parallel to the Delaware and to the two east-west runways.
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Those ideas would have turned the runways at a 45-degree angle, aligning them to the northeast so that more takeoffs and landings would take place over the Heinz refuge.
Delays in takeoffs and landings at Philadelphia exceed 10 minutes now and are projected to average more than 15 minutes by the end of next year.