Owned and operated by the city throughout its 80-year history, when it first opened in 1940, Philadelphia Municipal Airport transported more than 40,000 passengers. Up to the early part of 2020, the airport, or to give it its three-letter code, PHL, had grown exponentially, serving 31 million passengers annually from the Philadelphia region and beyond.
One of the most historically significant cities in the USA, The City of Philadelphia officially entered the field of air transportation in 1925 when it provided 125 acres of land (now part of the northeast corner of the airport) for training aviators of the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1926, the City concluded an agreement with the Ludington Exhibition Company, one of the forerunners to Eastern Airlines, to operate the facility as the "Municipal Aviation Landing Field."
October 22, 1927 was an historic day for Philadelphia and its airport as the ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’, piloted by Charles A. Lindbergh, touched down at the airport. The arrival occurred during a tour of the United States following Lindbergh's historic solo flight from New York to Paris. During his visit, Lindbergh ceremoniously raised the American flag to dedicate what was then called Philadelphia Municipal Airport.
By this time, the adjoining 1,000-acre Hog Island site, which contained the giant emergency shipbuilding yards of World War I, had become derelict. In 1930, the City purchased Hog Island from the Federal Government for $3 million to provide for airport expansion. However, because of the Great Depression, the project lay dormant until 1936. Actual construction of the building and landing field began in 1937, and the airport was formally opened as Philadelphia Municipal Airport on June 20, 1940. The four airlines then serving Philadelphia through Central Airport in nearby Camden, NJ (American, Eastern, TWA, and United) terminated their operations there and moved to the new airport. In 1945, Philadelphia Municipal Airport became Philadelphia International Airport when American Overseas Airlines inaugurated transatlantic service.
By the 1960s, the City and the airlines based at PHL began intensive planning for a vast improvement project to meet the challenges of the jet age. Subsequently, the Division of Aviation built new passenger and airfield facilities to meet the needs of the travelling public. The scheduled airlines also committed to a massive modernisation and development project, which resulted in the layout still seen today. The keystone of the project, a $22 million all-weather runway (9R-27L), including related high-speed taxiways, was dedicated on December 11, 1972. The airport's $3 million Overseas Terminal opened in April 1973 (this facility handled international and charter flights until it was replaced with the new Richardson Dilworth International Terminal A in March 1991).
In the spring of 1977, the $300 million modernisation and development of the domestic terminal area was completed, replacing the ‘central type’ terminal with four unit terminals (B, C, D, and E). The project also included the erection of two multi-level parking garages, costing $24 million, financed through the issuance of revenue bonds by the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The airport subsequently saw significant improvements with the implementation of a major $695 million capital improvement program. In December 1981, the decade opened with the dedication of a state-of-the-art $6.5 million Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control tower. In the late 1980's, a $695 million, six-year capital improvement program began that called for construction to begin on a new $100 million international terminal (Terminal A, completed in 1991); the total renovation of Terminals B, C, D and E; reconstruction of all public restrooms; a new 2,800-space multi-level parking garage; and enhanced roadway signs.
The newly consolidated Terminal B/C opened in June 1998 featuring a new ticketing pavilion with more than 50 check-in positions; the ‘Philadelphia Market Place at the Airport’ with more than 30 national and local shops and eateries including Lids, The Gap, Sbarro's, TGI Friday's and many others; a US Airways Club on the third level overlooking the airfield and a baggage claim connector with 7 new carousels. On August 2, 1999, PHL broke ground on new regional and international terminals. Terminal F opened in June 2001 with international Terminal A-West opening in May 2003. On December 3, 1999, the Airport commissioned Runway 8/26. Constructed at a cost of $221 million, this 5,000 foot runway is used for regional and general aviation aircraft.
The early 2000’s saw significant developments and upgrades to the footprint of the airport. The opening of two new terminals nearly doubled the size of the airport complex from 1.4 million to 2.4 million square feet. Unprecedented demand for air travel, spurred by low-fare competition in this decade, steadily increased passenger traffic to 30.7 million in 2009. In 2001, PHL ushered in a new era of regional airline service with the opening of Terminal F. The $100 million, 185,000 square-foot terminal offers 3 concourses and 38 gates for regional aircraft, and was designed to accommodate 6 million passengers a year with a host of modern amenities. Terminal F was one of the first facilities in the country to use special jet bridges allowing passengers to transition directly from the terminal to commuter aircraft. In 2002, a $17 million, 11-story ramp control tower was opened. Situated between Terminals A-East and B, the 7,000 square foot tower features positions for 21 airline ramp controllers, office space and a centre to manage airfield operations. Extending 207 feet above the ground, the tower offers improved sight lines and modern technology to enhance the flow of aircraft movement.
A $20 million expansion of Concourse D and the Terminal D baggage claim was completed in 2003, which included the addition of four new gates, an expanded baggage claim facility, and new concession space. Also in 2003, PHL celebrated the opening of its new International Terminal A-West. The $550 million, 800,000 square foot terminal is spread over four levels connected to Terminal A-East. Combined with A-East, the complex accommodates nearly 4 million international passengers annually. It features 13 international boarding gates, more than 50 Bureau of Customs and Immigration inspection positions, 8 high-speed baggage carousels, 60 ticket counter positions, and a uniquely designed arrivals hall dominated by an atrium and stunning artwork conveying Philadelphia's identity as America's birthplace.
PHL added several state-of-the art facilities, including a $53 million de-icing facility located on 35 acres at the western border of the airport and a high-tech Aircraft Fire Fighting Training Centre, located on the southern boundary. In 2008, an all-new Terminal D/E Connector opened, featuring a combined 14-lane security checkpoint equipped with state-of-the-art X-ray screening technology, a dozen new food/beverage and retail shops, and permanent artwork. In 2009, the $70 million Runway 17-35 project was dedicated, which extended the north-south runway by 1,040 feet to 6,540 feet. The added surface will enable larger jets that account for 75 percent of aircraft operations at PHL to use the runway, thereby alleviating congestion and delays on the airport's two major runways. By the end of the decade, PHL had broken into the global top 10 busiest airport rankings with 535,666 aircraft operations in 2009.
Since 2010 PHL has been committed to focusing on projects designed to improve the passenger experience, lay the groundwork for future development and capitalising on the role that the airport plays as a regional economic engine. PHL also has a keen interest in welcoming new carriers and routes, giving passengers more choices and destinations in their travels either originating from Philadelphia or connecting through PHL. A $45 million Terminal E expansion opened in 2010, featuring seven new aircraft gates, a 500-seat waiting area, a mini-food court, a high bay ceiling filtering in natural lighting and new permanent artwork. Also in 2010, the Terminal D/E baggage claim project opened, complete with two new carousels and new restroom facilities. In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Record of Decision (ROD) approving the airport’s Capacity Enhancement Program (CEP), a multi-billion program with the purpose of enhancing airfield capacity to address delays at the airport. At that time, PHL had been identified by the FAA as one of the airports contributing to delays throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). The CEP was based on the Airport’s Master Plan and included projects addressing runway length, airfield geometry, runway capacity, in addition to expansion and reconfiguration of the existing terminal complex. Also in 2011, the FAA awarded a $466.5 million Letter of Intent (LOI) to provide some funding for airfield elements of the CEP. From 2007 through 2017, improvements to air traffic control were implemented by FAA, and airfield improvements were completed by the airport. As a result, the airport and airlines focused on terminal, gate capacity, landside, and cargo development. Additionally, airfield improvement priorities were reassessed by the airlines, airport and the FAA.
In 2013, the newly redesigned Terminal F Hub opened featuring new food, beverage and retail shops, a 300-seat food court area, fascinating new permanent artwork and an enhanced bus shelter. In 2015, the E-F Secure Connector opened, enabling passengers to access all terminals and gates from the post-Security side. And in 2016, the new Terminal F Baggage Claim Building opened, completing the $127 million Terminal F renovation and expansion project; the $35 million baggage claim facility is the first LEED Gold project at the airport. PHL continues to evaluate its capacity needs in a changing economic climate. In 2017, the airport and hub carrier American Airlines announced a $900 million commitment to continue critical improvements and develop new infrastructure at PHL and Philadelphia Northeast Airport (PNE) over the next five to seven years. This Capital Development Project (CDP) promises to deliver needed improvements to the facility and represents a unique growth opportunity for Philadelphia’s businesses and workforce. The on-going projects will generate almost $4 billion in regional economic output over a 5-year period, which equates to approximately 5,100 on-going jobs over the same 5-year period.
Other highlights include the 2011 dedication of the How Philly Moves mural by the Airport and the City’s Mural Arts Program. The mural, which is among the largest completed in the United States and occupies the largest square footage of any project completed by the City’s Mural Arts Program, celebrates Philadelphia’s longstanding dance traditions with images 26 dancers representing a variety of dance styles on the façade of the Airport’s parking garages.
PHL continues to welcome new carriers and routes to its service. In 2012, Virgin America began serving PHL with daily nonstop flights to the West Coast. Virgin was the first new airline to start service at PHL in eight years. Over the next six years, additional airlines began serving PHL with daily and seasonal flights, including Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Spirit Airlines, and JetBlue. In 2014, Qatar Airways became the first foreign flag carrier in more than a decade to begin service when it launched daily non-stop service to Doha. Icelandair launched seasonal service in May 2017, and Aer Lingus began non-stop flights to Dublin in March 2018. As of December 2018, PHL offers nearly 450 daily non-stop flights to 99 domestic and 38 international destinations.
The Capital Development Programme at PHL is bringing innovation to the airfield and terminals and is strengthening regional economic impact. Through the initiative, PHL Airport is continuing a commitment of over $2.403 billion in approved funding to make critical improvements and develop new infrastructure at both PHL and Philadelphia Northeast Airport (PNE). These airfield and terminal projects, which began in 2012, are improving the customer experience, laying the groundwork for future development and capitalising on the role that the airport plays as a regional economic engine. As of quarter 3, 2019 Capital Development has invested over $900 million in 179 ongoing and completed projects. In total $886 million is approved to provide innovations and improvements to the terminals, $700 million is approved for airfield development, $732 million is approved for landside projects and $86 million is approved to upgrade security and information technology at PHL. To date, approximately 40% of the total approved budget has been funded in projects from the planning phase to completion.
In addition, major improvements to concessions have been made to the airport to enhance the customer experience and comfort, such as the ‘On The Go’ experience in Terminal B, the Quiet Room, restroom upgrades, roof replacements and tile flooring renovations. Terminal F, which serves regional air routes, was significantly improved with a $150 million expansion project and escalator replacement and upgrades were made across the airport. Airfield projects included repaving the two major runways and new and enhanced taxiways and shoulders, which will enable aircraft to more easily queue for departure. Runway 9R-27L was extended by approximately 1,500 feet, which is expected to decrease traffic density and allow for long-haul departure capability at the airport. A new truck-based de-icing facility was recently completed to improve winter service with flexible and more efficient aircraft de-icing.
The Covid-19 Pandemic
Like everywhere else, travelling through PHL has changed significantly in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Face coverings are now required by PHL and its airline partners.
The TSA screening process is modified to protect passengers.
Keep possession of your boarding pass
Separate food for X-ray screening
Larger hand sanitiser bottles
Physical distance in lines
Standard advice for departing passengers is to arrive early. There may be less people in the airport, but physical distancing requirements do slow down some processes. The original rule of thumb recommending two hours for domestic flights and three hours for international, still applies.
Check out what's open at PHL. Each terminal offers food and travel essentials, so make sure you know which terminal you're travelling through so you know what your options are.
Try out the Grab app. Grab is a contactless food ordering platform that helps guests fly past the line and order food without ever pulling out a credit card.
The safety of employees and passengers is PHL’s priority. PHL and its partners use a common response plan that outlines preventing the transmission and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and across state lines. Airport representatives have been working closely with the CDC, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management and state officials to monitor the status of COVID-19 in the region and support a coordinated response.
Additionally, PHL has stepped up its cleaning and disinfecting procedures to include the use of Envirox Critical Care, a highly potent disinfectant formulated for critical disease transfer points. The chemical is known for its low toxicity and 24-hour residual bacterial killing abilities. This chemical is being used on handrails for steps, escalators and moving sidewalks, as well as elevators, handles, buttons, floors and restrooms.
In order to reduce the number of passengers touching common areas, PHL has proactively installed motion sensor activated technology throughout public areas, including doors, taps, soap dispensers, flush valves and paper towel dispensers. Each terminal is stocked with hand sanitiser dispensers, and most of the 50 water bottle filling stations are hands free. Health screenings for international travellers are initiated in PHL's Terminal A-West International Arrivals. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will initiate the screening process by visually inspecting arriving travellers. Officers will be looking for visible signs of illness, including appearing unwell, coughing or difficulty breathing. All international passengers from countries affected by COVID-19 will also receive a printed guide. Some PHL airline partners are temperature screening passengers. Check with your airline for more information.
Interview with CEO Chellie Cameron.
Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) Chief Executive Officer Chellie Cameron has been named a recipient of the Most Admired CEO awards by the Philadelphia Business Journal. In her role as CEO, Cameron oversees the planning, development and administration of all activities for PHL, which generates $16.8 billion in annual spending to the regional economy and accounts for more than 106,000 jobs within the region. Cameron has made enhancing the customer experience, improving current Airport facilities and building for the future her top priorities. She has been a member of the PHL leadership team since 2011 and has also served as the Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Director of Finance and Administration.
Previously, Cameron spent 13 years with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and served for seven years as an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and one year as an Air Force civilian employee; she completed her service in 1998 as an active duty captain. Cameron serves on numerous boards and advisory groups at international, national and local level. Her leadership roles in the aviation industry and local community reflect her passion for the role airports play in connecting communities with the world, growing local economies, and developing diverse and inclusive employee teams.
KJMT: The Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected air travel in a way that has never been seen before. Obviously passenger and cargo aircraft movements have dropped dramatically – this has an equally obvious effect on the numbers of people working directly for the airport. How many people have either been temporarily laid off or lost their jobs already?
CC: PHL and PNE are owned and operated by the City of Philadelphia Division of Aviation. The Division of Aviation employs 800 employees, along with another 200 staff from the Philadelphia Police Department and Philadelphia Fire Department. As of July 2020, the airport entity itself has only laid off a few employees, mostly temporary workers. PHL is home to hundreds of companies that are working tirelessly to adjust their operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The airport does not have access to specific data around personnel adjustments within each company.
KJMT: How many were employed directly before the pandemic?
CC: The airport supported 21,000 badged employees prior to the crisis.
KJMT: What of people indirectly affected; approximately how many people earned their living in supply industries?
CC. Our 2019 Regional Economic Impact Report showed an overall annual economic impact of $16.8 billion, supporting 106,800 jobs with $5.4 billion in earnings. The Report further breaks down the Airport’s impact into three tiers: aviation operations, airport-related operations and regional businesses and residents.
KJMT: What were your traffic figures one year ago and before the closedown took effect?
CC: In 2019, PHL served more than 33.02 million passengers. January and February of 2020 saw modest passenger volume gains, but by March, the crisis took hold and air travel ground to a near-halt.
KJMT: In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced a 14-day quarantine period to be imposed for all people arriving by air. This has been downgraded somewhat and ‘air bridges’ to a limited number of countries has been compiled. The USA however, is not one of them. Obviously this will continue to affect further demand for travel and many airports in the US have flights to the UK, especially the London airports – despite the drop in demand, London has continued to see limited services. Is this likely to drop still further or can you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
CC: American Airline intends to begin flying transatlantic service to Amsterdam, Dublin, London Heathrow and Madrid beginning in October 2020. These plans are dependent on travel restrictions lifting and PHL being designated as a funnel airport, but PHL is hopeful that these changes will occur soon.
KJMT: With so many airliners parked, an obvious purpose for some of them is to modify them to carry cargo especially that which can be strapped to seats normally used for passengers. Medical supplies are especially important and although we have now seen this happen, it took a while. How much cargo has been carried through PHL compared to before the pandemic? How much of this was medical and related supplies?
CC: Through April, our cargo operations were up 6% this year. We do not know exactly how much of that was medical and related supplies, however, in May, American Airlines added twice weekly flights to San Juan and once a week trips to Rome and Zurich. American’s 25,000 square foot, temperature-controlled cargo facility makes PHL a key hub for pharmaceutical companies, connecting critical medicines and temperature-sensitive shipments such as medicine personal protective equipment, life-saving medical equipment and time-sensitive organ transplants to where they are needed most. Over the course of several weeks in April and May, Portugal-based Hi Fly made several flights between PHL and China, transporting face masks from China to Philadelphia.
KJMT: How long do you think it might be before things begin to ease?
CC: We are watching state, national and international COVID-19 infection rates carefully, but the question of when the world will be open again is unfortunately totally unpredictable right now.
KJMT: How long might it take for air travel to recover to the point where it was until the start of 2020?
CC: PHL does not expect air travel to return to pre-crisis levels until 2022 for domestic travel only. International travel is still too volatile to forecast.
KJMT: Do you have aircraft parked/stored at the airport and if so, from which airlines?
CC: American Airlines is the only airline with aircraft staged at PHL. We received inquiries early on from others, but they never materialized. American’s planes at PHL are in short term ready status. They are tended to daily and rotated in and out of the schedule. While there are a number of narrow body aircraft here (mostly A321s and B737s) they rotate into the schedule every few days. We expect many of them to return to service in July. They are mostly parked at Terminal A West, which is primarily used for the airport’s international flights. PHL’s de-icing pad was also used as storage space.
KJMT: Most people will know that airlines pay to use an airport, they are not free. What is the approximate loss in income from airline user fees and passenger spending?
CC: PHL has a residual agreement with its signatory airlines that allows the airport to recover the net costs of operating and developing the airport (operations and maintenance and debt service) after receiving credit for non-airline revenues. Revenue from non-airline passenger activity, such as our concession and ground transportation providers, is down commensurate with the drop in passenger traffic. As a result of these drops, we have trimmed our budgets in this fiscal year and next.
KJMT: We have already seen some airlines cease operating entirely as a result of the crisis. Are you expecting any of the airlines that have suspended service not to resume them when the current restrictions begin to relax?
CC: We maintain close contact with our airline partners, and we do not presently anticipate any additional service cuts to occur. However, we understand and support the evolving priorities of our airline partners and will support their needs as they strive to keep their businesses healthy.
KJMT: If an airline has aircraft stored at the airport, are there fees due for the time the aircraft are spending parked on airport property?
CC: Based on our rules and regulations, we do not charge a fee for aircraft parking for signatory air carriers.
KJMT: Air transport, both those airlines that survive and the airports that they use, will be of immense importance when recovery does get underway. Yet at the same time, air travel has, in recent times, faced severe criticism from climate change activists. How might you be able to reconcile this?
CC: PHL continues to support and contribute to efforts to reduce carbon emissions in aviation and the transportation sector as a whole. PHL is committed to environmental stewardship and continually updates its plans to incorporate emission reduction initiatives such as supporting airlines in electrification of ground support equipment, gate improvements to reduce aircraft engine emissions, ground transportation and fleet efficiency improvements, in addition to continuous monitoring of our greenhouse gas emissions to see where improvements can be made.
KJMT: The consequences of the Global shutdown have affected everybody. How is the city and community you serve been affected, both financially and socially?
CC: The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented strain on not just the travel industry, but the world economy. At its lowest point in April 2020, PHL experienced a 95% reduction in weekly commercial air traffic compared to the same time in 2019. This had a direct impact on every business in the airport ecosystem, from on-site partners to contractors and support services. PHL’s future will closely mirror the world’s return to air travel. The “new normal” will rely on innovative solutions to complex new challenges created in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. PHL is ready to partner with its tenants on pioneering these changes and moving forward as an airport community.
KJMT: PHL celebrated a notable landmark this year, eighty years. Naturally this would have been affected by the circumstances so how were you able to mark the event and will you capitalising on it as things improve, throughout the rest of 2020 and in to 2021?
CC: PHL marked its 80th anniversary through social media celebrations and an in-depth feature on AirportHistory.org. However, there are many other milestones and initiatives that hold significance for the airport community.
The most notable development to come out of 2020’s disruptive nature is the establishment of PHL’s new Racial Equity Strategic Plan, a project that will establish PHL as a leader and change initiator for the aviation industry. That plan will be led by a diverse team of airport leaders, who are committed to weaving racial equity into the core of every business decision the airport makes.
Appreciation is extended to Chellie Cameron, Chief Executive Officer, Heather Redfern, Public Affairs Manager and David Rosenblum, Photography/Video Production Specialist, Philadelphia International Airport, for their help in completing this feature.
All images courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport
For an in-depth look at PHL's history with many photographs from the airport's early days, visit https://www.airporthistory.org/
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