Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia International Airport is growing again after a decade of ups and downs

PHL has 500 daily flights, 25 airlines, and generates $15.4 billion annual economic impact. The airport supports 96,300 total jobs, including 54,000 direct jobs on or near the airport.

Philadelphia International Airport is growing again.

After a decade of spotty growth, much of it due to the 2008 recession, the airport is seeing upticks in passengers, freight, and flights from low-cost airlines.

"It was a crazy decade that we went through," said Philadelphia airport CEO Chellie Cameron, who joined Mayor Kenney and other officials Monday to discuss the airport's economic importance to the region. While PHL was growing in the early 2000s, "it went off the cliff for a while, and then it started to come back," she said. "The good news is that we have recovered. We were able to hold our own and come out at the end with an economic impact better than where we were 10 years ago."

A new report by Econsult Solutions shows that the airport now has 500 daily flights and 25 airlines, and generates $15.4 billion in annual economic impact in the region.

PHL supports 96,300 total jobs, including 54,000 "direct" jobs in terminals and on the airfield, for airlines, in retail, rental car facilities, cargo operations, freight forwarding, and at UPS's large air-freight facility, the study says.

The jobs include 20,000 "badged" employees in terminals and on the airfield, and another 20,000 jobs in hotels, restaurants, retail, and cultural attractions, said Econsult director Ethan Conner-Ross.

Over the last decade, there were five big airline mergers -- US Airways-America West, Delta-Northwest, United-Continental, Southwest-Air Tran, and American-US Airways -- that resulted in consolidation. The new carriers have fine-tuned networks and routes where two competing airlines once flew.

Airlines have also been retiring smaller aircraft and using bigger planes, and packing more people in them. At PHL, that has meant fewer takeoffs and landings, from 535,000 in 2005 to fewer than 400,000 last year, but the number of passengers has stayed fairly constant.

The result? Philadelphia International does not need a fifth new runway now. "The delays are not as severe at Philadelphia as they were before," Cameron said.

The airport and airlines, which finance capital projects in their rents and charges, are now deciding the next improvement projects.

With passenger numbers holding steady at about 30 million annually, the focus will likely be on sprucing up terminal facilities, including maintenance and repair projects "where we replace roofs, HVAC air-conditioning and heating systems, and elevators and escalators, the sort of stuff that makes the day-to-day experience and operation better," Cameron said.

The airport is lengthening a main east-west runway -- 9 Right, 27 Left – from 10,500 to 12,000 feet. "It will be one of the longest runways on the East Coast, and allow us to handle the largest aircraft out there, fully loaded in the middle of a hot summer day," Cameron said.

The previous economic study, released in March 2006, and the new report can't be compared because the methodology changed, Econsult said.

The jobs created and taxes benefit all four Pennsylvania suburban counties; Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties in New Jersey; New Castle County, Del., and Cecil County, Md., the report said.

The biggest beneficiaries are the City of Philadelphia and Delaware County. Two-thirds of PHL is in neighboring Tinicum Township. Among 20,000 employees with badges who work in terminals and the airfield, 8,575 live in Philadelphia, 3,420 live in Delaware County, 830 live in Camden County, and 852 come from New Castle County. More than half are members of minority groups: 42 percent identify as black, 6 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are Asian.

Since 2013, when American and US Airways merged, creating the world's largest airline, the new American has trimmed some flights -- notably a daily flight to Tel Aviv, Israel -- and moved planes to where they can make the most money, while trimming the number of flights on routes where both carriers used to fly.

Philadelphia remains American's fourth-largest hub out of nine, with more than 400 daily flights. "Where we came out of the merger was a really good place," Cameron said. "We are still the trans-Atlantic gateway on the East Coast. We have more service to Europe than the New York airports for American Airlines."

American employs 8,300 in Philadelphia and has made more than $100 million in capital investments to its PHL facilities in the last three years, helping the local construction industry, the report noted.

Southwest, which arrived in Philadelphia with a splash in 2004, has retreated from PHL in recent years as US Airways (now American) proved to be a formidable competitor.

At the same time, the so-called low-cost airlines -- Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue, and Alaska (which recently acquired Virgin America) -- have been expanding in Philadelphia.

Since 2014, Qatar Airways has had a daily flight to Doha, the Qatari capital. Icelandair will begin seasonal summer service in May to Reykjavík.

"This report will provide a new baseline for us," Cameron said. "We're going to do it again in two to three years to measure our progress" to guide future infrastructure decisions.

"Do we need to focus on a new cargo development and operation? I think the answer is absolutely, yes," Cameron said. "We may still need that new runway some day. We just don't need it today. In the meantime, we are spending a lot of money -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- on repair projects to make what we have today look better and operate more efficiently."