PHL airport
Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

PHL Airport enlisted millennials to help make it less terrible

One of the nation’s worst places to fly wants a makeover.

PHL airport
Danya Henninger/Billy Penn
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PHL Airport knew it had an image problem. Leaders of the transportation hub, which is owned and operated by the city of Philadelphia, had become aware of some of the less welcoming experiences travelers had there. Things like the long walks through terminals with as much personality as a hospital room, or interactions with employees who take simple questions as personal insults.

But how do you fix those things? How does one make an airport more hospitable?

In an attempt to solve these issues, the city and PHL turned to a new source: “Civic consulting” from the Committee of Seventy. The airport project serves as a test of a new direction for the the nonpartisan political watchdog group, which hopes to convene more of these groups for other public needs as part of an initiative it’s calling the Franklin Challenge.

In this case, the Committee of Seventy formed a team of 17 delegates, many of them millennials, to study the airport and converse with its staff regarding areas of concern. The three most pressing questions were how to make PHL more functional and memorable, how to make it show better on social media and how to have it come off as generally friendlier.

The airport task force, called Project Runway, put together 100 pages worth of recommendations. Though the full report won’t be released until October, ideas include having employees wear badges identifying their Philly neighborhood to increase pride, and portraying a more modern, high-end glimpse of the city in the airport’s atmosphere.

PHL has long been ranked among the nation’s worst airports and when the pope visited in 2015 employees were offered customer service tips for better treating the influx of visitors.

“We’re all so passionate about the city and so passionate about changing the reputation of the airport,” said task force member Lauren Hughes, director of development for the Arden Theatre Company. “It was very exciting and very invigorating. Everyone just got really jazzed.”

Hughes was joined on the team by other young leaders such as Brad Baer, partner and director of strategy at Blue Cadet; Omar Woodard, executive director GreenLight Fund Philadelphia and a Billy Penn Who’s Next honoree; Julie Donofrio, managing director of PennPraxis; and Michelle Freeman, CEO of Witty Gritty and also a Billy Penn Who’s Nexter. Baer noted the younger members had very different views of the airport than more established Philadelphians who were part of the group, such as former deputy mayor Alan Greenberger and Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Baer, who is originally from the Midwest, got his first taste of PHL about 10 years ago when he was interviewing for a position with architecture firm Kieran Timberlake. It was wintertime, and a snowstorm hit. Flights were stranded for four days. He ended up at some hotel in West Chester waiting everything out, the reports he’d heard about PHL being one of the country’s worst airports fulfilled.

However, through his work on the Project Runway task force, Baer learned that many things are out of PHL’s direct control — and not just those delays. Of the 20,000 employees who work at the airport, for instance, only 800 are employed by the city-run Division of Aviation.

Uniting the disparate groups of airport employees was identified as one of the project’s priorities.

Per Hughes, one specific recommendation was to formulate a clear, engaging mission statement for staff, and another was to encourage them to wear badges showcasing the neighborhood in Philly or the suburb where they live. The latter would also play into making the airport feel more authentically Philly.

“We talked about the Philadelphia attitude,” Hughes said. “It can be loud, but it’s fun and engaging. Part of my feedback was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to give this attitude and have it be somehow institutionalized?’”

Said Baer: “I was actually really impressed that the group didn’t want to make it literally Philly like cheesesteaks, Rocky and Ben Franklin. There’s more of an emphasis like on BYO restaurants and technology and entrepreneurship. Not bash them over the head with Philadelphia but just creating a nice, high-end experience.”

Another idea the group came up with, Baer said, was to redesign the area just after security where passengers can meet with family and friends. The panel suggested adding a backdrop for photos because so many people take pictures there.

This first rendition of “civic consulting” was hatched at a luncheon in early 2016 attended by Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh, consultant Chris Satullo and PHL CEO Chellie Cameron. After a talk about some of PHL’s issues, they brought up their Franklin Challenge initiative. By early this year, they had an official contract, and the Project Runway group worked for the last several months.

The hope for those involved is the city will turn to this type of consulting again. Woodard, CEO of the nonprofit The Greenlight Fund, has been involved with boards and taskforces in the business and political realms before and noted the amount of people under age 40, coupled with more established leaders, led to a fresh look at a complicated issue.

“It’s an approach that Philadelphia needs to take on more,” Woodard said. “It was a space where you could identify real problems and put forward solutions where there’s no pride of authorship, there’s no ego, there’s no credit. We’re all just trying to solve this problem together.”