Looking at cities to the north and the south, officials at Philadelphia International Airport see a powerful status symbol they still lack: federal approval to receive many flights from abroad — in Philly’s case, namely Europe.
Since coronavirus-related restrictions on international travel took effect earlier this year, the U.S. government has granted so-called funneling status to a select group of airports, meaning that passenger flights from China, the United Kingdom, much of continental Europe, and certain other countries can land there.
The list has grown to 15 airports so far. But PHL isn’t on it.
“We just have been excluded from this club of funneling airports,” PHL CEO Chellie Cameron said during a virtual event Wednesday, part of ongoing efforts to convince federal officials to let Philadelphia in. Newark Liberty, New York’s JFK, Washington Dulles, and Boston Logan all have the designation.
So do airports in several smaller cities, such as Seattle-Tacoma, Fort Lauderdale, and Detroit.
International tourism plays a big role in the Philadelphia region’s economy. Nearly 700,000 overseas travelers visited Philadelphia in 2018, generating $1.2 billion in economic activity, according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. The organization has not yet finalized its count of 2019 international visitors, but on Wednesday it estimated that the number of those visitors could fall 79% in 2020 because of COVID-19.
Funneling status isn’t the only factor in the outlook. Consumer confidence in the safety of travel and restrictions on foreign nationals entering the U.S. will also help determine the region’s travel and tourism recovery.
But the designation for PHL is an important piece to resolve, particularly since the U.S. curtailed European travel in mid-March, Cameron and other business leaders stressed during Wednesday’s event. It was organized by the British American Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.
“We built up this long-term standing for these international travelers as a gateway city,” said Gregg Caren, CEO of the convention and visitors bureau. Re-opening overseas routes will be critical, he said, “to cement our competitive standing in the Northeast.”
An interagency committee that includes the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation evaluates airports that could be added to the funneling list, according to Cameron. When international passengers arrive at a funneling airport, they fill out a health form, and could be referred to the CDC for additional screening of symptoms. Well before the pandemic, PHL already had a CDC quarantine station for infectious disease screening.
Cameron said PHL’s absence “befuddles” her, though she pointed to one partial explanation. Airlines and federal agencies were considering a contact tracing program, she said, which could have eliminated the need for designated funneling airports.
“That really hasn’t moved, like it was originally anticipated, and so right now we see our real option as being added to this funneling list,” Cameron said.
“In 2019 we were No. 10 in the nation in terms of transatlantic flights,” Cameron said. “Last year, we had more than 4,600 flights to Europe” across five airlines and 22 destinations. “This year, hardly any. Once the restrictions went into place, we haven’t been able to accept those passengers at all.”
The Department of Transportation did not answer questions about PHL’s funneling status or contact tracing. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
“American Airlines continues to push for Philly to be added as a funnel airport,” said Gary Tomasulo, managing director for corporate security at the airline.
Philadelphia has served as American Airlines’ gateway hub to Europe, and the company plans to relaunch service from PHL to 16 European cities next summer as long as government restrictions are removed.