The city's Division of Aviation offers frequent group tours for schoolchildren. Groups of 10 or more are led by volunteer guides on a 90- minute tour and slide show. The free tour covers everything from the baggage claim area to the ticket counter and finishes with a ride along the
runway in a small bus to see the planes as the ground crew sees them. (For more information about arranging a tour, call 937-1930, ext. 1587.)
But a casual tour of the airport can be just as fun. Get some maps of the airport from the Philadelphia Information Center in Terminal C. Start off by leaving the air-conditioning behind and taking an elevator to the top of Garage C, go to the edge of garage for a view of the entire airport. This offers the best view - not just of the runways, but of the entire airport complex, the rail line and even ships plying the Delaware behind the airport.
It's a good spot to ponder the way Philadelphia is connected to the rest of the region and the world.
Then duck back inside to explore some of the amenities that make PHL seem like a small city.
Each of the four terminals has the usual set of bathrooms, newsstands and snack-and-souvenir shops. But there's also a barber shop and an automated Post Office in Terminal C.
Most of the airport's 40,000 flyers travel on commercial airlines. But PHL is also the eastern hub for MAC - the Military Aircraft Command - which coordinates the military personnel who stop in our city on a short layover or extended stay. Look for the young soldiers and sailors heading for the USO Lounge in Terminal D, with dozens of olive drab duffels pyramided neatly out front.
Indoors, the best views of takeoffs and landings are at the far ends of Terminal B and Terminal E.
Depending on wind direction, planes will land from east or west; choose your vantage point after checking out a few flights. If you see nothing but taxiing planes from Terminal B, try the view from Terminal E.
The terminals are good places to help kids get over their fears of flying. Seeing 30 or 40 planes land and take off smoothly, and watching dozens of little kids cheerfully getting onto planes, can show children that they, too, can handle a plane flight.
One of the many cheap thrills at the aiport is showing children how to convert U.S. money into foreign bills at the foreign exchange counters in each of the terminals. Try starting at one counter and taking some money on a trip around the world by changing it into lire, francs, marks, pounds, pesos and back into American dollars. Get started on this early - only the exchange counter in the Overseas Terminal stays open past 2 p.m.
Midafternoon is the best time, by the way, to visit the Overseas Terminal, a free bus ride away from the main concourse. Every day between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., the big 747s from overseas come in and out of this usually quiet annex.
Then there's an explosion of strange accents and continental greetings and goodbyes. Since Overseas is basically a windowless box, one good strategy is to watch planes land from Terminal E, then grab the shuttle to Overseas just in time to see all the people getting out of customs. Or watch eveyone say goodbye, then head back to the main complex to watch the take-off.
Besides the shuttle bus between the parking lots and the two terminals, there also are free buses to nearby airport hotels.
There's a video arcade in between Terminals B and C. Progressive parents beware - almost all of its 20 machines are of the "Bad Dude/Street Ninja/ Alien Crusher" variety.
TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL VISIT
Bring extra clothing - the air conditioning can vary from mild to arctic.
PHL is almost a ghost town until noon. You'll see the most flights and people between 1:30 and 7 p.m. The busiest days are Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
Right around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, the airport gets packed and frantic; it might be a bit scary to a kid at those times, and you'll never get out of the airport parking lots if you drive.
Wear comfortable shoes; you're going to cover lots of ground.
If you must drive, leave after the morning rush and try to wait until 6 p.m. before the jam around PHL subsides.
Don't park in the short-term lot where you'll rack up $2 every half-hour. Use the long-term remote lot ($4.50 for up to 6 hours) and catch the shuttle to the main terminal. (An alternative is to park in one of several private remote lots in the airport area. They generally are fenced in and offer free shuttle buses to and from the airport.)
A nice finish to a car trip is parking on Island Road just before Fort Mifflin. The main runways end just west of there, and the big jets go right overhead.