Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club 2017
Dick Palmer and Bill Dorsey died this year. We will miss them.

What's Wrong With our Airport?

CEO, Rochelle L. Cameron

You can often judge the importance of a Right Angle Club lecture by the number of members who hang around afterward to argue with the speaker, and if so, we just had a good one. The speaker was a lady, the new appointee as CEO, Rochelle L. Cameron. She's full of enthusiasm for her new job, but we have had a previous speaker in the same job and could recognize the political problem immediately. She's white and her predecessor was black, just like the two mayors who appointed them. The political problem symbolized both the problem and the opportunity. The airport serves three states and nine counties. That gives it six U.S. Senators and ten congressmen, but it also gives it at least sixteen political bosses with a veto, maybe many more. China is widening the Panama canal for bigger container ships, but the Delaware must be deepened to compete with Wilmington, while the New Jersey Legislature has New York clamoring for a deeper harbor, and New York -- has more congressmen.


So that's one problem to juggle. The second is the airport is too small, sitting on 2400 acres when planes keep getting bigger and fuller. By comparison, the five biggest competitor cities are all approaching 10,000 acres, getting more crowded with people, bigger planes, longer flights, more hotels, more stores, and traffic. One of the reasons Boeing's new Dreamliner is greeted so enthusiastically is that it uses shorter runways. And a little discovery appears: the new runway aims directly at a maritime crane, and can't be effectively used for take-offs. It would require millions of dollars to repair the problem, either by buying the crane or banking the runway.

Airlines Prices

And thirdly, our bitter legislative enemy, Pittsburgh, more or less controls the attention of the monopoly airline. Airline prices are mostly determined by competition, so we have high prices and a questionable ally. Over the years, Philadelphia has yielded a veto to the airlines and actually only employs a minority of the thousands of jobs the airport provides. The enormous parking is controlled by state-appointed authority, which in turn is controlled by Republicans who are unfriendly to the local Democratic machine, as just one example. The maritime unions have their own issues and carry a history of destroying Philadelphia's port interests, next door. Struggles over casino licenses lurk beneath a veneer of civility. Philadelphia has a unique combination of rail, highway, maritime, and airline interconnection, but all of those transportation modalities have competitive issues with the airport. The largest city in the state is treated like a wounded stag, with everybody competing to bring it down, tax it to death, or exhort a heavy price for cooperation. To some extent that's also true for New York and Chicago, but apparently they combat it better.

The Wharton School

To some extent, the fourth handicap is our own creation. The lady who invented the hub and spokes creation is on the faculty of the Wharton School. The hub arrangement is good for the airline, at the expense of the airport. The airlines naturally schedule the landings close together, to please the transferring passengers, mostly going between short-hauls and long-hauls. That jams up the airports at some times of day, but it leaves the terminal deserted at other times, making retail store-owners unhappy. They dislike the airport location and keep the rentals low. Some time ago, the airlines were given veto power, so they (or it) have the power to block a change from hub and spokes to something more locally favorable.

And the fifth handicap is a lack of nearby vacant land, either to expand or to build a second airport. With handicaps like this, we wish the lady well. If she succeeds, she will be eligible to run for mayor or governor. As if we didn't have too much politics, already.

Originally published: Saturday, July 22, 2017; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019