The data that define airport performance often stem, for better or worse, from the most complicated travel days in a given year, when delays super-size and passengers fume. The fierce winter storm of March 16 -- the one that sneak-attacked an entire state -- was such a day.
Stanley Luczak thought the weather would let him off easy that day. Forecasters had predicted the worst of it to arrive in mid-afternoon, just around the time that Mr. Luczak, operations duty manager at Pittsburgh International Airport, would end his shift.
"My actual figuring was, well, the next guys will be worrying about it," he said. "Everything was supposed to be hunky-dory until [5 p.m.]."
He arrived at the airport around 7 a.m. and studied the weather printout generated by one of three independently contracted airport forecasters. But within the hour, he noticed that worsening conditions -- and dropping temperatures -- didn't jibe with the prediction.
And suddenly, Mr. Luczak, one of seven men with the power to single-handedly shut down the airport, faced a Domino-line of snap decisions that would determine much about his airport's functionality for the day, and the weekend.
Across the state, Charles Isdell, Philadelphia International's director of aviation, was dealing with a similar constellation of nasty conditions.
After the storm dropped between 5 and 17 inches of snow throughout Pennsylvania, 1,000 people were still stranded that night at Philadelphia International Airport. Some there waited in kiosk lines for more than three hours to re-book flights. The airport sometimes maintained only one usable runway.
"It caught us off guard," said Mr. Isdell. "I don't think anybody knew the storm was coming as early as it did. ... It threw off our whole game plan."
At Pittsburgh International, that same storm caused only a fraction of the mayhem. Fewer than 25 fliers were stranded Friday night, spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said, and many received hotel vouchers.
The reputations of Pennsylvania's two primary airports differ as much as their size and age. Philadelphia International opened during World War II
; the new Pittsburgh International opened in 1992. Though the airports, only a decade ago, served roughly the same number of passengers, in 2006, Philadelphia served 31.8 million and Pittsburgh served just less than 10 million.
According to the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2006, 80.6 percent of flights departed Pittsburgh on time, ranking it 9th among 31 major U.S. airports. Philadelphia ranked 27th, with an on-time rate of 72.2 percent. And, among 14 carriers reporting data on flights leaving Pittsburgh, US Airways had the smallest percentage of flight delays, just 12.3. In Philadelphia, that percentage rose to 28.3.
"The airside of Pittsburgh is celebrated for the operational efficiency," said Bill Lauer, a local airline analyst. "Pittsburgh has generally had a very benign, on-time performance level. As compared to, say, Philadelphia. ..."
"For full disclosure," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, "I've lived in Philadelphia, and I fully believe its airport should be leveled."
Of course, in the airline industry, even the most conclusive data come with caveats. Statistics from one airport depend on performance at another; just as efficiency reciprocates, problems can spiderweb. A plane late leaving Boston for its first morning flight, for instance, will likely perpetuate that delay at every airport it flies into for the remainder of the day. Airports aren't designed to make up for lost time.
That's why Pittsburgh, during the weekend storm, wanted to maintain two working runways at all times. Failing to do so would cripple operations. And Mr. Luczak, among others, shouldered responsibility for problem-solving his way out of the quagmire.
"The thing is," said Kent George, executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, "we will not be the restriction. We will not."
Just after 8 a.m. on that snowy Friday, Mr. Luczak, who 13 years ago left the grocery business and found an entry-level job at the airport, recognized the need for unplanned action. He, not his successor in the next shift, would need to make a decision.
With ground temperatures close to freezing, Mr. Luczak feared the formation of ice on the runways -- a potentially fatal danger to planes landing at 165 mph. At 8:21, according to airport logbooks, he asked the crew outside to activate the anti-icing operation: This meant the runways would be covered with $75,000 worth of chemicals. This also meant that if temperatures soon rose to, say, 34 degrees, Mr. Luczak would face responsibility for burning that money without good cause.
Having held his current position since 2000, Mr. Luczak -- with glasses, a buzz-cut and a Drew Carey build -- knew the vagaries of airport management firsthand. For the longest days, he and his staff could make use of the on-site cots and kitchen. Delays could result from weather patterns, poor personnel training, decisions made by individual carriers. Delays borne at other airports could follow certain flights all day.
Delays could lurk anywhere, even underground, where groundhogs could chew through electrical wiring.
"We try to euthanize as many as possible," he said matter-of-factly.
Philadelphia has its own problems, some unpreventable. It's sandwiched between Washington, D.C., and New York City, each with three major airports that crowd the airspace above it, restricting some Philadelphia departures. Beyond that, Philadelphia's own growth has forced a series of construction projects, and even its minor on-time improvements -- its delay ranking rose from 31st (worst) in 2005 to 27th in 2006 -- "is not really something to jump up and down about," Mr. Isdell said.
In 2003 and 2004, US Airways finalized a hub transition that swapped Pittsburgh for Philadelphia. The airline rightfully saw potential in the eastern city because of its market size and room for growth; it became the gateway for European and Caribbean flights, and Pittsburgh shrank into a "secondary hub." Daily, US Airways now offers 431 flights from Philadelphia and 145 from Pittsburgh.
"For better of worse, US Airways, in terminal B and C, they occupy the two oldest parts of our airport," Mr. Isdell said. "They are not the most user-friendly areas. They were built in 1953. They have had some cosmetic upgrades, but they have narrow concourses. The spaces between the airplanes where they taxi are narrower than what you'd build today. And the infrastructure is 50 years old, so we're constantly replacing electrical systems, things like that."
US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said that "Pittsburgh is not a hub for us, and Philadelphia is. A hub is always going to have lower numbers in terms of performance, most always."
By the time the storm moved across Pennsylvania, the delicate, nationwide airline infrastructure was already set for days of complications.
Snow and ice continued to fall on that Friday afternoon. Heavy-duty trucks, equipped with plows and brooms as wide as double-lane highways, cleared Pittsburgh's two operating runways. The ground temperature never rose above freezing, and Mr. Luczak, having risked $75,000 on a quick judgment call, felt proud.
By Sunday, according to most news estimates, US Airways was trying to help 100,000 fliers stranded systemwide. Those in Pittsburgh's and Philadelphia's control towers directed planes to the sky, ensuring that they'd take off -- per federal regulations -- within six minutes of receiving the de-icing treatment.
But Pittsburgh, in part due to Mr. Luczak's pre-emptive decision to treat the runways with chemicals, faced no problems of its own. The treatment process, Mr. Luczak said, "helped us out all weekend."
"Philosophically," he said, "I knew I did good. Even if it had gone the other way, I knew I made the right decision. ... Nobody said anything to me or anything like that. It was just, you know -- I was proud -- especially because I went against the grain."