When I moved to South Philadelphia in 2011 to take a finance job at Philadelphia International Airport, I affectionately described the city to my friends and family as “aggressively friendly,” a particular brand of in-your-face hospitality that is both surprising and reassuring to newcomers. I instantly felt at home as I became familiar with the tenacity, generosity, and grit that are uniquely Philly.
Nine years later, and in my fifth year as CEO of PHL, I find myself expanding my description of the city’s personality to include “aggressively loyal” and “aggressively protective.” The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the very best in our region’s business community, and I have witnessed that phenomenon firsthand as the region has come together to fight for the airport’s future.
From March 16 to Sept. 14, PHL was unable to receive transatlantic flights due to federal restrictions on where international flights could be routed. More than 12% of PHL’s passenger volume came from international flights in 2019, so this restriction dealt a brutal blow to not just the airport, but to the 11,000 jobs supported directly by international travel. We hit barrier after barrier in our attempts to find a solution, so we reached out to our business and community partners for help.
The response was overwhelming and immediate, as major organizations and leaders throughout the Philadelphia region collectively asked, “What can we do?” This singular focus kicked off a powerful public-private partnership that I believe should serve as a nationwide model for collaboration and recovery.
In July, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s CEO and president Rob Wonderling threw his full support behind our cause, penning an op-ed expressing the critical importance of PHL’s status as a transatlantic hub for the Mid-Atlantic.
Efforts ramped up as we watched our peak summer travel season fly by without European air service. Our congressional delegation worked their contacts in Washington, reaching out to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection. More than 4,000 people signed a petition to reach the decision-makers who could help tell our story. We watched as the media reported our plight in major publications, elevating the issue to the national stage.
On Sept. 3, leaders from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, the British American Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, American Airlines, and Philadelphia International Medicine joined me on a webinar that drove home the impact of the funneling airport issue on the business community.
Exactly one week later, we received the thrilling news that our efforts had paid off. The CDC lifted health screening restrictions that limited travel to funneling airports, and we soon welcomed back our first transatlantic flight with the return of service from British Airways to Heathrow.
As we look ahead to an uncertain future and celebrate the kindness that sustained us through this challenge, I want to be clear that the work has only just begun. The airport still needs support from the public and private sectors to help us push through the predicted lengthy recovery facing the travel industry, so here’s what you can do to help:
Keep the pressure on elected officials to pursue appropriate COVID-19 testing protocols that can enable the reopening of international travel markets while increasing confidence in the health and safety of the air transportation system.
If you’re a business traveler, please consider completing our Airport Traveler Survey: Changing Habits in Air Travel, hosted by the chamber’s CEO Council for Growth.
The path ahead is a marathon, not a sprint, and the PHL family is committed to fighting for the region’s prosperity by continuing to fulfill our mission: proudly connecting Philadelphia to the world.
Chellie Cameron is the CEO of the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Aviation, which owns and operates Philadelphia International Airport and Northeast Philadelphia Airport.