How many late-night PPA employees are needed at Philly airport?

Posted: March 21, 2014

IN THE MIDDLE of the night at Philadelphia International Airport, with no flights in or out, the parking garages and lots are a quiet place.

About 2 a.m. on a recent weekday, a cashier at the economy lot had walked over to a co-worker's booth to talk and pass the time. Another at the garages dawdled on an iPhone, waiting for any driver who decided not to use the many automated booths. A maintenance employee who cleans the garages said there was little to do after one round of picking up trash.

"Between 2 and 5 [a.m.], sometimes I don't see a single customer," said one cashier on a different night, who passes the time by listening to music and reading books. "No way do we need to be here."

Another cashier said there is a reason the Philadelphia Parking Authority has so many people working overnight at the airport - and it isn't operational need.

"People need jobs," the cashier said, acknowledging the patronage system that feeds some employees to the Parking Authority. "We all need these jobs."

About two dozen employees - cashiers, clerks who scan license plates, maintenance workers who clean the garages, a supervisor who monitors cars as they leave on a screen and others - work the overnight shift at the airport parking facilities. With days off, the staff each night is typically 15 to 20, including six to eight cashiers.

So how many Parking Authority employees does it take to run an inactive airport?

Authority officials are emphatic that the existing overnight staff is needed. They suggested that the late-night workers are criticizing their shift because it is the least desirable and they hope it will be eliminated.

(The workers were approached by the Daily News and agreed to speak anonymously because they are not allowed to talk to the media without permission.)

"The perception is that the airport closes between 1 and 5 [a.m.], and that's just not the case," authority Deputy Executive Director Richard Dickson said. "It's about customer service, it's about reputation, and it's about having a good experience going in and out."

The last scheduled flight, Dickson said, arrives about 1 a.m., and the first flight is between 5 and 5:30 a.m. In the meantime, the lots and garages need to be ready for late flights and for events at the Marriott across the street, he said. Airport employees who get off work in the middle of the night also park there.

"We can't really devise a shift that has a two-hour hole in the middle of it," Dickson said of why an overnight shift was needed.

Anywhere from 70 to 500 drivers exit the garages and economy lot during the slowest hours, according to Parking Authority data.

About 90 percent go through cashier booths, not the automated gates. The staffed booths have steady green "Open" signs, while the automated booths have blinking blue "Self service" signs. Drivers may be choosing the staffed booths out of convenience or because they think they're the only ones open.

Under federal law, the authority must turn over all its profits at the airport to the city Department of Aviation. Dickson said the facilities produce about $63 million in revenue per year, with a $24 million profit for the city.

Frank Ragozzino, PPA's director of airport operations, said staff has been cut dramatically in recent years and that the authority will continue to look for opportunities to cut more and to increase the use of technology.

Since taking over the airport parking operations from a private contractor in 2004, the authority has cut staff there from 184 to 159 employees, including going from 74 to 43 cashiers.

It's unlikely, however, that it will adopt walk-up kiosks similar to parking garages in Center City, which would eliminate the need for cashiers, because the numerous entrance points to the airport garages would make the system unwieldy.

Typically, many on the overnight shift have connections to the city's political system.

One is a Democratic committeewoman, another is a judge of elections, three are election inspectors for the Democratic Party, and one is a relative of Al Taubenberger, the 2007 GOP mayoral candidate who now serves on the authority's board.

Taubenberger and that employee did not respond to requests for comment.

"There's certainly patronage hires there," Dickson said.

But, he said, all employees are held to the same performance standards.

Dickson said the fact that there were so many patronage hires on the overnight shift was evidence that the authority did not give them favoritism.

"They don't have any extra pull," he said.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN


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