PHILADELPHIA — Operations at the Philadelphia International Airport are soaring out of the recession in what may be their best year on record to date and officials are hoping and planning for it only to get better.

"We are finally back from the economic downturn," PHL Chief Executive Officer Rochelle "Chellie" Cameron said. "We have finally recovered in 2019 from the hit that the economic downturn took ... We actually think that we are going to have a record year, that we will hit the highest levels ever."

From January through November last year, 30.3 million passengers flew from Philadelphia, compared with 29.1 million in the 12-month period in 2018.

"We're already over 30 million passengers," Cameron said. "We believe it will be 32-something. It's a growth rate from 2019 over 2018 of over 4 percent."

Takeoffs and landings also saw an increase of 3.1 percent, according to the CEO.

Plane movements, which include both takeoffs and landings, numbered 375,732 from January through November. For the 12 months in 2018, that number was 347,056.

"In the past two years, we've actually seen growth in terms of takeoffs and landings and that's a very positive sign," Cameron said.

 "We had gone through a period of 12, 13 years of steady declines in terms of the numbers of takeoffs and landings," the CEO explained, adding, however, that passenger numbers stayed relatively consistent in that time despite the fluctuations in flights due to the airlines using bigger airplanes, which could transport more passengers while doing fewer operations.

"In the past two years, we've actually seen growth in terms of takeoffs and landings and that's a very positive sign," Cameron said.

The Philadelphia International Airport sits on 2,500 acres straddling Philadelphia and Delaware County, with most of the four runways in Delco. Through 126 gates in seven terminals spread over 3.2 million square feet, 493 flights fly to 146 destinations.  The facility also employs 21,000 badged employees, houses 19,000 parking spaces and 450,000 square feet of cargo space, an area airport officials anticipate will be an area of great potential.

"Our cargo freight has been growing like gangbusters," Cameron said, adding that the industry continues to be very closely analyzed by airport officials.

PHL Chief Revenue Officer James "Jim" Tyrrell noted companies like Amazon are taking over the world and Philadelphia wants to be a part of that.

"E-commerce has increased 20 percent year over year for the past three or four years and the expectation is it's going to continue to increase," he said. 

The airport had commissioned a study about regional cargo movement trends and it found that the cargo catchment area extends 450 miles around Philadelphia.

"That's the distance people will ship or travel to have their product move by air," Tyrrell said. "In that 450 miles, there's $53 billion of air cargo shipped and received each year. We handle 9 percent of it today."

The bulk of what goes through Philadelphia is handled through UPS, FedEx and in the belly of American Airlines passenger flights, he said.

The rest is directed to New York, Newark, New Jersey, Washington and Baltimore.

Two years ago, the city of Philadelphia bought the 135-acre Henderson tract adjacent to the airport property for $54.5 million to build a premier air cargo facility to tap into that market. They then also held an Air Cargo Workshop with approximately three dozen cargo and logistics companies including Amazon, Alibaba, Lufthansa and American Airlines, to see what they'd like to see in such a facility.

"Everybody came because this is a key location in the Northeast corridor on the East Coast, where you can reach 63 percent of the total population in the U.S. in a matter of a quick drive," Tyrell said.

Since then, airport officials have been working to relocate Tinicum Island Road, which they anticipate should be complete next year.

While working to expand market share in largely untapped markets, Philadelphia has also placed an emphasis on customer experience at the airport.

"Guest experience is critically important to airports, not just nationally, but globally," Tyrrell said. "People have a choice of what airport they want to fly out of (or) fly through ... I can go on a train and go up to Newark in a matter of 40 minutes or I can go south to Baltimore or Washington."

For the 8.3 million people in Philadelphia International Airport's catchment area, he said, "we want to be that airport that people choose to fly out of. We want to be that airport of choice."

In conjunction with that, the airport is undergoing renovations in the 48 sets of publicly accessed restrooms throughout the facility, ranging from a complete gutting to fresh paint, depending on the needs of the room. This is estimated to be complete by 2026.

There's also other accoutrements to enhance the experience, from a Quiet Room for prayer and meditation to lactation suites for mothers' private use, to technology availability in Terminal B with charging stations and iPads, which the public can use to play games or have food ordered to be delivered right to their location.

Tyrell also explained the importance of presenting passengers with a flavor of Philadelphia is paramount.

"Some people never get out of the airport," he said. "So the only taste of Philadelphia they may have is what we provide them here in our facility, so we make it a point to try and bring the flavor of Philadelphia into the facility."

One way that is done is through the offerings of the restaurants and eateries in the 170-vendor Philadelphia Marketplace, such as Chickie's & Pete's, La Colombe and Bud & Marilyn's.

"All of these local operators who really just ooze Philadelphia is how we get that taste of Philadelphia to all the people who come to our facility," Tyrrell said.

In addition, the airport's exhibition program has showcased local artists since 1998 in a way of humanizing the environment through permanent and temporary displays. 

One such display is King Saladeen's painting installation, which sits atop the moving walkway between Terminals C and D and features bright, vivid colors fused with motivational sayings like, "Dream Big!" along with a stylized image of the Philadelphia skyline. 

In another, also between Terminals C and D, Amberella amassed large hearts simulating the candy ones handed out at Valentine's Day affixed with messages such as "Believe it," "Follow UR Heart" and "You Are Powerful." She encourages participation by asking viewers to tag where their heart takes them @PHLAirportArt and @amberellaxo.

All of these efforts from making the airport an enticing environment for passengers and cargo companies has a ripple effect beyond the flight gates, producing $16.8 billion in economic impact to the region with 106,800 direct and related jobs.

"We're a good economic engine for the region," Tracy Borda, the airport's chief financial operator, said. "(It's) a hub of activity that really has produced indirect effects that just billow out beyond the airport."

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