Philadelphia International diving into the cargo end of the business

TINICUM – Delaware County will receive over $3 billion in economic benefits from Philadelphia International Airport, according to Keith Brune, the airport’s interim CEO.

And while that’s not the $4 billion it took in in pre-pandemic numbers, Brune said it showed promise for revenue generation at the transportation hub, particularly with freight.

“We are pleased to have a great partner in Delaware County,” said Brune, whose formal title is interim CEO and COO for the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Aviation. “A lot of people don’t know, but 70 percent of the airport is actually in Delaware County.”

The 3.2 million square foot facility, covering nearly 2,600 acres, is within Delco’s boundaries with all but one of the four runways, Terminal A West, A East and portions of Terminal B and all of Cargo City.

Brune spoke at a Delaware County Chamber of Commerce event at the Lazaretto Ballroom in Essington on Friday, where he shared how the past few years have been at the airport and where the airport is headed.

Keith Brune, interim CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, spoke about how Delaware County receives more than $3 billion in economic benefits annually.  (KATHLEEN E. CAREY - DAILY TIMES)
Keith Brune, interim CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, spoke about how Delaware County receives more than $3 billion in economic benefits annually. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)

The airport, like most other industries, was not immune to the pandemic.

In 2019, Philadelphia International Airport handled approximately 33 million passengers and 390,000 takeoffs and landings. In the same year, an average of 93,000 passengers passed through the terminals every day.

In April 2020, Brune said, “We handled 125,000 passengers this month, which we would normally do in 28 hours.”

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“So,” he added, “we crashed really badly, really fast and we’re fighting back.”

One sign of this is more frequent sightings of the business traveler.

“We’ve noticed over the last month and a half that our business travel is coming back, and that’s always kind of a frontrunner,” Brune said. “Before the pandemic, about 45 percent of our passengers were business travelers and about 55 percent were leisure travelers. During the pandemic we were around 5 percent, 10 percent business travel. And those numbers go up about 40 percent on certain days of the week.”

Overall, he said the airport accounts for about 78 percent of pre-pandemic passenger numbers.

Freight becomes the key

The CEO also presented a brewing growth opportunity for the facility.

“Cargo is really the bright spot,” he said.

In 2019, the airport handled 607,500 tons of cargo. In 2021, this rose to 643,138 tons.

“Even during the pandemic, when we were unable to carry international passengers from Europe, British Airways, Lufthansa and American Airlines were flying passenger planes back and forth with nothing but cargo,” Brune explained.

Part of Cargo’s success was not just the pandemic, but also its opportunity for growth within the airline industry.

“Our load has increased significantly,” Brune said. “We have a steady increase of about 1 percent, 2 percent per month.”

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Just before the pandemic, the airport had completed a cargo study looking at the mid-Atlantic catchment area, an area about 400 miles from the facility. This turned out to include a $53 billion economic impact on the cargo.

“We capture 9 percent of that,” Brune said.

Although he recognized that this airport would not get 100 percent of it, he said that another 5 to 10 percent would have a huge impact.

To provide another perspective, Brune said New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has 4 million square feet for cargo and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey has about 2.5 million square feet for cargo.

In comparison, Philadelphia has 450,000 square feet.

The next trains

“So it’s very difficult to compete with, and admittedly we’ve focused on passenger airlines for the last 40 years,” he said as he outlined steps to change that.

One of these is the relocation of Tinicum Island Road around the western edge of the airport.

“We just laid the groundwork for that in the last week or so,” Brune said.

Another focus will be improving access on and off Interstate 95 in connection with the airport. This is in the preliminary planning phase, including discussions with Delaware County and PennDOT officials.

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“We believe this will really improve traffic flow on Governor Printz Boulevard and (Route) 291 and keep all vehicular traffic out of communities,” Brune said.

Another part will be wetland rehabilitation to prepare the western part of the airport for cargo expansion. Brune said he anticipates it will take another year or two to develop the 30 acres at FDR Park in Philadelphia that the airport is paying for to offset the 3 or 4 acres that would be needed for the expansion .

Earlier this month, Philadelphia’s Division of Aviation and Aviation Facilities Co. announced that they will be working with Menzies Aviation to build a 150,000-square-foot cargo facility at the airport over the next few years.

Brune added that the airport is in talks with other developers that it plans to share over the next year.

In the next eight to 10 years, the airport expects to complete full western cargo expansion.

Brune said the airport acquired the 136 acres needed for this development several years ago. With that, officials have completed some preliminary planning and expect to get about 1 million square feet into this cargo space.

Brune said millions of square feet, when fully developed, would support about 6,000 permanent high-paying jobs.

“We are very excited about these opportunities,” he said.

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