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Philadelphia International Airport CEO looks for more pandemic funds on Capitol Hill

“Ultimately we think airports are important enough to communities to be able to justify that expenditure of dollars,” Chellie Cameron said.

Philadelphia International Airport CEO Chellie Cameron at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2019.
Philadelphia International Airport CEO Chellie Cameron at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2019.Read moreCAMERON POLLACK / File Photograph

As the travel industry continues to struggle with the financial fallout from the pandemic, a leading trade group for America’s airports has elected Philadelphia International Airport CEO Chellie Cameron to be one of its top advocates to Congress and the Biden administration.

Cameron’s first order of business: helping secure $17 billion in additional relief for commercial airports nationwide, PHL among them.

“We just can’t keep up in this environment in a situation that we really didn’t create,” Cameron said. “And ultimately we think airports are important enough to communities to be able to justify that expenditure of dollars.”

Cameron is an executive committee member of the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), and this month she started a two-year term as chair of the group’s U.S. Policy Council.

The trade group’s $17 billion ask is based on estimates of revenue lost from steep drops in passenger traffic, as well as the costs of implementing new safety measures and upkeep related to COVID-19.

Passenger volume at PHL is still down almost 70% compared with 2019, cutting into revenue streams from paid parking lots to inside the terminals.

“Our entire ecosystem is hurt,” Cameron said. “So the airlines are not doing well. The concession operators aren’t doing well — again, because of the passenger levels. And so we desperately need dollars to help us fund our ongoing operations.”

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It costs nearly $1 million a day to operate the airport. PHL received $116 million under the CARES Act relief package that Congress passed last spring, the equivalent of about 3½ months of operating costs.

The nation’s airports altogether received $10 billion in CARES Act grants. Airports are now slated to receive another $2 billion as part of the COVID-19 stimulus bill adopted in December. PHL estimates it will get about $20 million from that package, or less than a month’s worth of expenses, Cameron notes.

Cameron remains concerned about the potential for layoffs at PHL — a possibility she raised last July — absent more money from Washington. The airport had to keep at least 90% of its roughly 1,000-person workforce on the payroll in exchange for federal relief funding. The first commitment lasted through December, and the latest agreement lasts through Feb. 15.

“If an additional relief package goes through and does not include airports, after Feb. 15, we are going to have to start looking at our staff as the next place where we can start to shed some costs because we won’t be able to keep things at that level,” Cameron said.

Before the pandemic, the airport was full six to eight times a day during “banks” of flights — the busy scheduling blocks when planes are coming and going, and passengers are making connections.

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“Now we do it two or three times a day,” Cameron said. “We still need the entire facility, we just don’t have the activity to support the facility that we built.”

Last spring, when travel plummeted after pandemic lockdown orders, PHL deferred landing fees it typically collects from airlines. By the end of 2020, carriers had all paid that money back to the airport, Cameron said.

When it comes to domestic travel, Cameron said the airlines have gotten much better at adapting their schedules to the current moment. “In other words, where people want to go, which are the leisure destinations, vs. the business destinations,” she said.

American Airlines, the dominant air carrier in Philadelphia, said last month that it will suspend four routes between PHL and Europe in 2021 due to low demand, but still plans to resume flights to 12 European destinations by summer.

“We’ve talked to them about our European traffic and the international traffic,” Cameron said. “They remain committed to bringing that traffic back to PHL, but it’s really going to depend on what happens at the national level.”

Late in the Trump administration, regulators lifted certain travel restrictions between the U.S. and the U.K., many European countries, China, and Brazil. “When the Biden administration came in, they put those restrictions back into place, and they added South Africa to the restrictions,” Cameron said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also now requiring COVID-19 testing for any passenger flying to the U.S. from a foreign country. Those travelers must get tested three days (or fewer) before their flight and show a negative test result, or provide documentation that they previously recovered from the coronavirus.

“As those sorts of executive orders and policy decisions are being made at the federal level, it’s going to impact what the airlines can and can’t do, and what kind of demand exists for those specific routes,” Cameron said.

“Doing things safely is really everybody’s goal,” she added. “We want to open up travel, but opening up travel that isn’t safe doesn’t help anybody.”