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Philly Road Warrior | Air travel pluses, inside and out

In this season of hectic holiday travel, two separate actions last week should bring joy to Philadelphia International Airport passengers who need to stay connected to the Internet, and to anyone fearful of being stranded by bad weather for hours inside an airline cabin.

In this season of hectic holiday travel, two separate actions last week should bring joy to Philadelphia International Airport passengers who need to stay connected to the Internet, and to anyone fearful of being stranded by bad weather for hours inside an airline cabin.

The second development, involving a federal judge's ruling about airline flights in New York state, doesn't apply directly to Philadelphia travelers. But it was a significant decision that could have widespread consequences and pressure the airlines to improve their customer service.

First, on the technology front, Philadelphia airport has made wireless Internet access free on Saturdays and Sundays and free to college students all the time. Before the launch of the program, wireless access cost $7.95 for a 24-hour-connection or $39.95 for unlimited connectivity for a month for everyone all the time.

Students who have Wi-Fi capability on laptop computers or cell phones need to present a college ID card at an airport information booth, where they will get a coupon with an authorization code.

The program prompted us to ask why the airport doesn't offer free wireless access all the time as an amenity that growing numbers of travelers would use. The answer from director Charles J. Isdell is that it's too expensive.

It cost almost $1 million to install the "backbone" needed to offer the service four years ago. The airport's wireless provider, AT&T Inc., paid for the upfront cost and recoups its investment from the fees. AT&T, which is in the midst of negotiating a new service contract with the airport, is helping pay the cost for the free weekend and student access, Isdell said.

To make wireless access free all the time for everyone, the airport would have had to pay for it and then recover it in the way it pays for everything else, Isdell said. The airport operates on a break-even basis, recovering all costs from the $4.50-per-passenger facility charge on each ticket, airline landing fees, and rent paid by tenants.

In 2003, when the wireless system was installed, US Airways was in dire financial shape. All major capital investments require US Airways' approval, and the airline wasn't interested in spending the money to make the service free, Isdell said.

Another reason not to offer free wireless all the time is that usage spiked when the airport experimented with giving it away between October and December 2006, putting a strain on the system, he said. This time, weekend usage will be monitored to see what it's costing and determine what the policy may be in the future.

Philadelphia's access charge is similar to what's done in the vast majority of big U.S. airports. Airport Revenue News, a trade magazine, said in a report last spring that 47 of the 50 largest airports had wireless access, and of the 47, only six airports give it away.

Isdell noted that Pittsburgh International is offering free access as a way to attract more air service since US Airways' cutback there. And Las Vegas McCarran, another one with free service, has a revenue stream PHL doesn't to offset the cost: slot machines on every concourse.

Second, the important service issue involves a New York state law adopted earlier this year that requires airlines to provide water, food and working toilets to passengers stranded on an airport tarmac for more than three hours. The law was enacted in response to JetBlue Airways' keeping passengers trapped for more than nine hours during a snow-and-ice storm at New York's Kennedy International Airport last Feb. 14.

While JetBlue got all the media attention that day, the same storm actually resulted in 41 flights getting stuck away from the terminal for at least three hours at Philadelphia International, compared with 27 at Kennedy.

Those episodes and others prompted Congress to consider legislation that is likely to be adopted next year requiring airlines to develop contingency plans for such situations and provide adequate onboard service.

The cabin captivity also prompted New York to enact its statute, which is more specific than the federal regulation would be. New York spells out what passengers are entitled to and fines airlines heavily if they don't deliver.

Legislators in five other states, including New Jersey, have introduced similar measures that haven't been acted upon yet.

The Air Transport Association trade group sued New York state, using a legal argument that has worked for the industry before: The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 gave all power over airline service to the federal government.

But U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn of Albany, N.Y., rejected that argument. He ruled that New York state does have the power to regulate matters of public health and that is what this is. That could encourage other states to adopt their own laws.

Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor-based Business Travel Coalition, which represents 300 big companies that buy millions of dollars a year in airline tickets, said the states wouldn't feel compelled to act if the U.S. Department of Transportation would use the power it already has in the deregulation act over airline service.

"What you need is for DOT to enforce the regulations," he said. "This is a response to that vacuum."