Come November, Philadelphia voters may decide whether the city’s airport division should become its own department in the mayor’s cabinet.
The division of aviation, which oversees Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE), currently falls under the Department of Commerce. A proposal to change the city charter — backed by Mayor Jim Kenney and outgoing airport CEO Chellie Cameron — would turn the division into a standalone aviation department, with the director reporting to the mayor.
Airport officials say the change will help streamline operations at a division that manages one of the biggest budgets in the city. The head of the new department would have signing authority for grants and contracts, and more say over staffing. The aviation division’s $388 million operating budget is the third largest among city departments.
The airport does not use local taxpayer dollars, and instead funds operations from fees paid by airlines and other revenue streams.
The proposal is scheduled for a May 23 hearing in City Council’s law and government committee. If the committee advances the legislation and it wins approval from Council, then the question of allowing the charter change will be on the ballot in the November general election.
Currently, the airport relies on MOUs among departments to get routine business done. But there’s a chance such agreements “could be replaced at the end of any administration,” leading to more red tape, the aviation division said in a letter submitted to City Council last month.
PHL has also lagged behind other airports “in terms of establishing new teams like Guest Experience or Passenger Services,” according to the letter. “These functions and teams include positions that are not found in the civil service ranks.”
Cameron, in a statement, said the “charter change will institutionalize key processes and procedures that support efficient operations at PHL.”
Passengers and employees will benefit from “quicker delivery of projects and services,” Cameron said. As for staffing, PHL would have “the ability to create new positions” and units that can adapt to changes in the industry, she said.
Establishing the airport as an independent department would “ultimately enhance operations” at PHL, and will better reflect “the impact it has on the economic growth and connectivity of the region,” said Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard.
The city’s airports generated $16.8 billion in annual economic impact for the region prior to the pandemic, the aviation division said.
The two companion bills to make the change are cosponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose South Philadelphia district encompasses PHL.
“Given the Airport’s size and importance, I agree with the mayor and Airport leadership that the change is warranted,” Johnson said in a statement. “I will keep working with all stakeholders to ensure a robust, equitable travel and hospitality sector as the economy continues its pandemic recovery.”
Airport officials worked on the proposal for over a year, they said, and looked to other cities as models: Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta all operate their airports through a department of aviation.
“This pandemic has taught us that we can’t go back to business as usual,” officials at PHL told Council in their April letter. “To succeed into the future, we need to ensure our airports are in the best position to adapt to changes within the industry.”