Frustration takes off among air travelers

Finally make it through Phila. airport security? You’re still a long way from getting airborne.

Posted: August 20, 2007

It looked like the worst line in the history of lines.

Like 1960s-era Soviets waiting for bread, passengers created a near-endless queue at the security checkpoint in Terminal D of Philadelphia International Airport at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Dismay had its place in line, as did panic and anger. If unhappiness were rain, a monsoon would have soaked the blue carpet. If frustration were heat, human flesh would have melted.

"This is the most incompetent airport in the world!" moaned Judy Albert, a Voorhees woman entertaining the ever-diminishing notion that she would be taking her 8-year-old granddaughter on a plane to Sarasota, Fla.

"We'll miss our flight. Only this airport gives me grief. It's horrendous."

There is a sort of madness to flying this summer. It is becoming spectacularly difficult to get on a plane and go somewhere. And Philly fliers in particular have much to be unhappy about.

At Philadelphia airport in June, 59 percent of flights arrived on time, and 61 percent took off on time.

Those numbers are among the worst in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. In fact, the Philadelphia airport was next-to-last in on-time departures.

Meanwhile, delays throughout America are at the highest level in 12 years, the department said.

And, the department added in a new report, the number of passengers in the first five months of 2007 is up 1.8 percent over the same period last year. In Philadelphia, passenger totals increased by a similar amount, according to airport spokeswoman Phyllis VanInstendal.

Summer travel figures have yet to be calculated. But summertime traditionally means more passengers and more delays. Weather triggers most delays, and summer thunderstorms wreck planes' schedules, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said.

Hurricane Dean did that this weekend, cancelling flights from Philadelphia to the Dominican Republic on Saturday and Jamaica yesterday.

There's still more bad Philly news. US Airways racked up the highest number of lost and damaged bags of any major airline in June, government figures showed.

So, oh yeah, stuff is roiling at the airport.

"Things are tough when you fly in or out of Philly," said Liz Craighead, a 19-year-old college student from Roxborough on her way to New Hampshire. "I love Philly. But this airport is notorious."

What travelers face is an agglomeration of impediments.

You plan an itinerary, pack bags, kennel the dog, segregate carry-on liquids.

Throughout this process, you are building momentum. You are, after all, traveling.

Then you get to the airport. And momentum stops. It's wholly counterintuitive: The place from which you are to launch is where you get slowed down.

"The design and layout of airport security lines in Philadelphia are the worst I've ever seen," said Jonathan Lu, a Center City consultant standing in that interminable Terminal D line.

There might be something to his argument, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The average wait to get through security in a major U.S. airport was 5.2 minutes in June, July and August through Thursday, said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman.

In Philadelphia, it was 7.21 minutes.

Similarly, the average peak wait time to pass through security (from 6 to 9 a.m., and 3 to 6 p.m.) was 17 minutes.

Philly clocked in at 21 minutes.

"Infrastructure limitations" were the reason, Davis said. In other words, there's not enough room to check everybody, a problem airport officials say they're addressing with expansion projects.

Even when you get yourself belted into an airplane seat, that still doesn't mean you're moving out anytime soon.

Philadelphia is among the worst airports for taxi-out time. This is the time elapsed between departure from the gate and takeoff, and it measures delays of three hours or more.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, only JFK; Newark; and Bangor, Maine, airports had worse rates.

VanInstendal listed several reasons for Philadelphia's problems: With some of the busiest airspace in the world, the airport is small and has limited runway room; the airport is a US Airways hub, and the airline keeps the facility hopping with lots of small planes; and, she added, "US Airways has been, historically, a poor on-time performer."

"We have issues with on-time because of crowded airspace," US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said. "We're doing everything we can."

Maybe, but it doesn't always translate. Customers complain about lack of communication from the airlines, as well as the less-than-subtle feeling that they're not being treated as valued guests.

The airlines foster the impression that they are happy to see you. "Thank you for flying!" they gush.

But gloved federal officials with wands treat you like you're Osama's cousin.

The takeaway message: "You're a valued customer who could kill us all. Enjoy the flight."

Still, you sign on for it. And you accept the body searches, the cramped seats, and high ticket prices.

All you want to do is get going. But what you often wind up doing is waiting.

"I was 14 hours late getting in," harrumphed Randy Simmons, a businessman from Atlanta. "If there's bad weather, the airlines are not good at reacting well."

The airline system is so tightly calibrated that a wet, black cloud in Chicago can make a Philly family tardy for Mickey Mouse in Orlando.

If you miss your connection, it could take days for your airline to get you on another plane, because flights are often overbooked, travel experts say.

"One thing wrong piles on another," Simmons said. "It is no fun out here."

It can, in fact, be dismal. For example, Baggage Claim E looks more like a bus station than part of an airport. It's dim, dingy and sad.

Exhausted people ringed the baggage carousel, awaiting their lumpy prizes.

Most travelers know enough to pack important stuff in carry-ons. So what these folks were waiting for primarily was their dirty laundry.

They are, however, supremely tied to it, and understandably upset when it does not come.

"I have no idea where our bags are," Alison Bennett of Wilmington said. "Neither does Delta."

Similar unlucky travel stories accumulate like unclaimed lugg


Still, the carousels turn, the planes fill up, the people stay on the move.

What choice do they have?

"Everyone you talk to is having horrible times flying," said Madison Williams in overcrowded Terminal F. "Just take a book and listen to music."

And keep your cool, hard as that is.

"I'm a Christian," said Jill Reed, at the end of a seven-hour trip for what should have been a one-hour flight. "So I try not to get enraged.

"But let me tell you: It's getting more and more frustrating to fly."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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