No Immunity on Parking Fees at Philadelphia Airport

March 16, 2005
The city's Commerce Department last month told the 35 members of Philadelphia's consular corps that they could no longer park free in garages at Philadelphia International Airport.
This may not rise to the level of international diplomatic incident - but it's close.

The city's Commerce Department last month told the 35 members of Philadelphia's consular corps - the official representatives of their countries in the region - that they could no longer park free in garages at Philadelphia International Airport.

Some of the consular officials had been abusing the privilege, leaving cars for days or weeks while on personal travel, Commerce Department spokesman Tom McNally said. In addition, according to an e-mail the consuls received, because of the city's "budgetary cuts, short-term parking has been suspended... in order to generate additional revenues."

The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which owns and operates the airport garages, said Friday that the consular officials weren't the only parkers targeted: A list of almost 1,000 people who once could park free in garages has been trimmed to 381 in an effort to meet higher demand from the public.

Late last week, the Commerce Department's diplomatic liaison, Carol Brooks, sent a longer message to the 35 consuls, clarifying how they can still arrange to park free for short periods near baggage-claim areas while picking up or dropping off visiting dignitaries.

But some of the diplomats - most of whom are unpaid honorary consuls who have a personal or professional connection to the country they represent - said earlier last week that ending the decade-long practice of free parking seemed short-sighted and, frankly, undiplomatic.

"It kind of came out of the blue," said Peter Rafaeli, a former auto dealer in Fort Washington who is honorary consul general of the Czech Republic. "It doesn't bode well for the city of Philadelphia. There's so much effort put into making Philadelphia an international city... . And God help them if this money makes a difference to the city's solvency."

Free airport parking was a small but important perk of the job, other consuls said.

"I'm very disappointed at losing it," said John Huffaker, a retired partner at the Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. law firm who is honorary consul of Madagascar. "There are very few other attractions of being an honorary consul."

City officials could not say how much revenue has been lost by providing free parking to almost 1,000 people.

City Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell said Friday that he was not aware of any abuse of parking privileges by consular officials. He said the main reason for clamping down is that demand for space in the garages is higher than it was a year ago, before Southwest Airlines started service and US Airways and other carriers responded by cutting fares. The airport accommodated a record 28.5 million passengers last year, a 15.5 percent increase over 2003.

"We've got full parking lots on a regular basis," Isdell said. "There was no effort on our part to target the consular corps."

Parking Authority spokeswoman Linda Miller, in a written response to questions, said free airport parking still was provided to elected city and state officials, police officers assigned to the airport, and people working for airlines and government agencies, including her authority.

Consuls are appointed by foreign governments to provide help to citizens of their countries while they are visiting the United States. They also can issue visas to visit the country, and serve as liaisons when businesses or institutions from the country want information on trade, educational or cultural issues.

Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Italy, Mexico, and Panama have full-time consul generals here. Some of them have free curbside parking space reserved for them at their Center City office buildings.

Honorary consuls, most of whom are U.S. citizens, work for the prestige of the title and to help spread good will, several members of the local consular corps said. Free parking in cities and at airports is routinely provided for consuls around the world, they said.

Albert Momjian, the honorary consul for Haiti and a lawyer with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P. in Center City, said that, among other things, he worked last year on finding emergency aid for Haiti after the Caribbean nation was devastated by floods. "We try to serve as ambassadors of the countries we represent," he said.

"I was very surprised they cut off the parking," Momjian said. "It's not the end of the world. God's been good to me. I can afford it. But it's a negative rather than a positive."