Authority proposed to run Phila. airport

A Delaware County lawmaker is finding bipartisan support for creating a regional authority to take control of Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley international airports with the goal of spreading the city's air traffic to other airports.

State Rep. Bryan Lentz, a freshman Democrat from Swarthmore, introduced a bill yesterday to establish the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Airport Authority to alleviate congestion at Philadelphia's airport and free up gates there for international flights.

The bill is set against the backdrop of the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to redesign the airspace in the Northeast corridor, which would redirect low-flying planes over Delaware County and South Jersey. The airspace redesign is strongly opposed by lawmakers in those areas.

Establishing a regional authority wouldn't block the FAA's plan, Lentz said, but would spread the flight demand in Philadelphia to Lehigh Valley and other airports in the region.

"The trend now is to concentrate it all in Philly, which is market-driven, but bad planning," Lentz said.

The FAA has cited airport delays as part of its justification for redesigning the airspace, though several area lawmakers argue that the reduction in delays would be minor.

Philadelphia served 31.8 million passengers last year, with nearly 516,000 arrivals and departures. It is expected to reach its theoretical capacity between 2014 and 2017, though it exceeds capacity during certain peak hours and in poor weather, according to airport spokeswoman Phyllis VanIstendal. The average delay is 11 to 13 minutes per flight, she said.

If a regional authority ran both airports, Lentz said, it would be in a position to push domestic flights out to Lehigh Valley and allow Philadelphia to concentrate on international traffic.

"Ten flights a day to Washington or Pittsburgh or New York doesn't make you a player in the world economy, but it certainly fills our skies up," he said.

The authority, as proposed, would also be required to enter into cooperative agreements with airports in New Jersey and Delaware, and coordinate planning and investment with SEPTA and Amtrak.

George Doughty, executive director of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which runs Lehigh Valley airport, questioned whether a new regional authority would be able to do what Lentz says.

Forcing an airline to fly out of Lehigh Valley by denying gate access at Philadelphia "would lose big time in federal court," Doughty said. "You have to provide access to major hub airports," he said.

Lentz countered that the authority could "manage and influence" where airlines operate without running afoul of federal laws.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell, said the governor hasn't reviewed Lentz's bill but would consider it if it reaches his desk.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who has made privatizing Philadelphia airport a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign, said he is not necessarily opposed to establishing an airport authority, but expressed concern about whether the city would be reimbursed. Fattah says leasing the airport could generate $150 million a year for city social programs.

"These things might not necessarily work in contradiction to one another," Fattah said, leaving open the possibility that the airport could be leased to the regional authority - or by the authority to a private firm.

Lentz said that misses the point. He called Fattah's proposal a "disaster" because it would provide a financial incentive for a company to jam as many flights as possible into Philadelphia.

"Just for the sake of long-term planning, we should be maximizing our use of regional airports," Lentz said.

Among the co-sponsors of Lentz's bill are several Delaware County Republicans - including Mario Civera, minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee - and Democratic state Reps. Josh Shapiro, the deputy House speaker, and John Siptroth, chairman of the House's aviation subcommittee.

State Reps. Babette Josephs, Tony Payton Jr. and Cherelle Parker, all Philadelphia Democrats, have also signed onto the bill.

In 2004, a commission created by the Legislature studied the feasibility of a state takeover of Philadelphia airport, but the idea fizzled amid criticism from city officials. *