5 Cool Things I Learned When Touring Philly Airport

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Not many people get to go “behind the scenes” at a major US airport. Fewer people get a private tour from the largest airline at that airport. But that’s what 20 members of the Travel & Hospitality Club did last April, when we visited American Airlines’ team at PHL.

1. Having your own private TSA security line is much better than Pre-Check

We gathered at Terminal B, where the AA team whisked us through a TSA line that they had opened just for us. They staff escorted us to a conference room below one of the boarding gates, which was filled with balloons, cake, and celebratory posters. No, the team wasn’t that excited to see us; it was AA’s 90th birthday, and the staff had just finished celebrating.

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2. PHL is AA’s gateway to Europe

Cedrick Rockamore, AA’s Vice President overseeing PHL, and Anthony Stanley, Director of Administration, greeted us and provided an overview of our tour. They talked about how PHL fits nicely into AA’s network with its 140K+ annual flights and 125 destinations. The airport connects the East Coast to Europe, without sending passengers through New York’s congested and expensive airports. They also spoke about some of AA’s challenges at the airport—namely, the fact that there are no non-stop flights to Asia yet, and that AA often has to pay for airport infrastructure enhancements that competing airlines benefit from.

3. Most planes don’t get fully fueled before a flight

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We then donned our bright orange safety vests and yellow earplugs, and were off to the ramp! The ramp is the area where planes park, are (off-)loaded, and serviced—many people incorrectly refer to it as the “tarmac.” Probably to the surprise of a plane full of passengers, we walked right up to a jet destined for Myrtle Beach and learned from the operations crew how they fuel the plane. They explained that fuel loading is a well-thought-out science that takes into account flight distance, weather, and the estimated weight of passengers, bags, and cargo on board. Airlines only load the amount of fuel they’ll need (plus a margin for safety) for a flight. After all, extra fuel equals extra weight, and extra weight burns even more fuel.

We also watched the team sort bags between connecting flights. Did you know that you should remove those small bar code stickers from your checked luggage once you’ve arrived at your destination? The small stickers serve as backup to the larger bag tags, and if you “collect” many of them on your suitcase you might cause your bag to get delayed if the handlers need to take the time to determine which barcode is the most recent one.

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4. Aviation has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, but some inspirational leaders are changing that

We returned to the conference room for a lunch session with an amazing person named Deborah Hecker, AA’s Chief Pilot at the PHL hub. She led a very interesting discussion about being a woman in a leadership position in aviation, which has historically been a male-dominated industry. She also touched on the influence of unions that serve as a bridge between management and the tens of thousands of airline workers. Outside of work, she’s heavily involved in getting girls and young women involved in aviation and STEM subjects at school. Did I mention she lives in Texas? And we complain about the commute between Center City and campus…

5. Flight controllers handle stressful situations extremely well

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Our last stop was the Hub Control Center in the tower, which is the nerve center of the operation. There, a group of highly-skilled ramp controllers orchestrate the movement of all the airport’s 1,000 daily arriving and departing flights. Despite the hectic nature of their work, the mood in the tower was calm and quiet—perhaps in part because they have an absolutely stunning view of the entire airfield and Delaware River. The ramp controllers are one of the many teams coordinating aircraft into and out of the airport—others include ground control (who tell the aircraft how to safely taxi to the runway) and air traffic control (who coordinate airborne aircraft). The controllers can even operate in low visibility conditions such as fog—they have a software program that tracks planes on the airfield, and looks like a very fancy, and expensive, video game.

We then wrapped up our tour and said our goodbyes. It was an experience I’ll never forget!

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