Sky is no limit

Air travel is different today than it was a year ago — an obvious statement to anyone who has traveled post-9-11 and had to remove his shoes for inspection at an airport security checkpoint.

And the changes keep coming — new federal security screeners and bomb-detection machines are the latest — but through it all, Philadelphia International Airport has retained more passengers than many airports around the country.

According to the Airports Council International, an aviation industry organization surveying the top 50 airports, Philadelphia moved up from the 20th to 19th busiest airport in the United States last year.

In 2001, Philadelphia handled 24 million passengers. That was 3.9 percent fewer than the previous year; however, air traffic slipped an average of 10 percent at facilities nationwide. Some airports saw passenger rates dip as low as 39 percent.

Charles J. Isdell Jr., the city’s director of aviation, called the one-rung climb on the nation’s ladder of busiest facilities a "positive sign for both the airport and the city."

Last month, federal security screeners took their posts in Terminal A and Terminal E, said airport spokesperson Mark Pesce. The workers are employees of the newly created Transportation Security Administration.

Information released by the TSA stated the agency had deployed federal screeners at 102 airports to assume the responsibility of passenger screening.

The TSA’s acting director, Admiral James Loy, told a Senate committee that the agency was on schedule to meet the Nov. 19 deadline to have federal screeners handling all passengers at security checks.

So far, 31,200 security personnel have been hired and trained, and a total of 32,000 are needed to staff all the country’s facilities.

"These screeners have been carefully selected and must pass stringent qualifying tests," Loy told the Senate. "Many applicants have not made the grade. Those that have are well trained for their important responsibilities."

Just this week, federal security screeners at Atlantic City International Airport stopped a Bulgarian national attempting to board an airplane with scissors and two box cutters in his backpack.

The man, identified as Nikolay Volodiev Dzhonev, 21, had the box cutters hidden in a bottle of lotion and the scissors embedded in a bar of soap when he was stopped at a security checkpoint Sunday morning. He reportedly said he was just trying to carry the items in a safe manner. According to authorities, Dzhonev had spent the summer here on a work visa and was trying to board a flight to South Carolina.

Officials have since determined the man has no apparent ties to terrorism and he has been released on a personal recognizance bond.

Aside from security, the TSA is also in charge of installing bomb-detecting machines to screen baggage at every airport. That process is moving more slowly, Loy said, and it appears unlikely machines will be operational in every airport by the Dec. 31 deadline.

Besides installation of machines, the agency also must hire and train more than 22,000 baggage screeners. Only seven airports have baggage screeners in place, the TSA reported, and only five facilities have screeners at every terminal: Mobile, Ala.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Norfolk, Va.; Dallas’ Love Field and Chicago’s Midway Airport.

Some airport operators have complained that this deadline will cause a severe delay, but Loy said his agency would press on.

"We must deploy explosive-detection systems at all of our airports as soon as possible," he said. "I will work with each airport to invest wisely in the solution that best meets the intent of the law."

Some in city government are pushing for additional changes at Philadelphia International.

In June, Councilman-at-Large James Kenney introduced a bill calling for hearings on limiting the number of gates available to US Airways in hopes of attracting new carriers and increasing competition.

Since 1986, Philadelphia has been a hub for US Airways flights. The airline currently leases 60 percent of the gates and its planes account for 74 percent of the airport’s daily departures.

Kenney, while maintaining the company is good for the city, said its dominance in the market prevents other airlines from accessing Philadelphia. He called the situation a "monopoly."

"Philadelphians wind up being both captive to US Air’s pricing structure and captive to the routes that US Air flies," the councilman said.

A U.S. Department of Transportation study released in April reported that travelers departing from Philadelphia International pay 23-percent higher fares than the national average.

That issue is coupled with a new willingness for people to depart from some of the smaller airports in the region, like Lehigh Valley, Atlantic City and Baltimore-Washington International.

"It is undeniable that people are choosing to fly out of different airports other than Philadelphia," Kenney said. "We have to turn that around."

Since his legislation was introduced to City Council, US Airways has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In light of that, Kenney said, the hearings make even more sense now.

Hearings are scheduled for Wednesday. Airline industry analysts, airport officials and US Airways officials are among those expected to testify.