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Guide to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)

Serving around 20 million passengers per year and ranked the 21st busiest U.S. airport, Philadelphia International (PHL) is the largest airport in the state of Pennsylvania and the primary airport for the region. Located a mere 7 miles (11 km) from the heart of Philadelphia city, the airport is home to twenty-two airline companies operating almost 500 departures daily to over 130 worldwide destinations.

It is a major hub for American Airlines operations across the North-eastern part of the United States and the company's primary gateway to Europe. It is also an important hub for UPS Airlines as well as for budget airline Frontier Airlines.

Spread over 2,300 acres, Philadelphia International has four runways and six terminal buildings and has the IATA (International Air Transport Association) designation code PHL.

History of Philadelphia International Airport

In 1925 the site of the current airport was called Hog Island and was originally a training airfield for the Pennsylvania National Guard. The airfield was named Philadelphia Municipal Airport by renowned American aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927 although the new airfield did not possess a proper terminal until 1940. Upon completion of the terminal, which was urgently needed to cope with demand, major airlines TWA, American Airlines, United Airlines and Eastern swiftly moved their operations to the improved airport.

From 1940, with World War II raging across Europe, the airport was used by the U.S. Air Corps as a base for flight training and various fighter and bomber squadrons underwent training and exercises at the airport during the war years.

Post-War Changes

At the end of the war in 1945, the airport was no longer required as an air force training base and overall control was returned to civilian authorities. The end of the war also saw a name change for the airport as it became Philadelphia International and major American operators commenced direct flights to Europe.

The seventies saw major developments and improvements at PHL as Terminal B/C was modernised in 1970, and Terminals D and E opened in 1973 and 1977 respectively.

By the end of the eighties and into the nineties, U.S. Airways became the airport's dominant carrier, a position that was further strengthened in 2003 when the airline moved much of its hub operations to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh. U.S. Airways merged with American Airlines in 2015 and the new company remains PHL's biggest operator with an average of 420 flights departing daily.

Further development followed with the opening of Terminal A-West in 2003 and runway extensions continued until 2009. The airport's status as an international hub for American Airlines combined with the increasing growth in service by Southwest Airlines have seen passenger numbers steadily increase over the past decades and passenger and cargo traffic continues to rise year after year.

Airport Layout

Philadelphia International is not a small airport as evidenced by the fact that there are no less than six terminal buildings to cater for the large numbers of passengers. Listed logically and simply as

Terminals A through F each has its own specific purpose:

Terminal A

Divided into east and west sections, Terminal A has a total of 24 gates and is an international terminal catering to airlines including:

  • West section. American Airlines (both domestic and international), Lufthansa, British Airways and Qatar Airways.
  • East section. American Airlines, Aer Lingus, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
    Terminals B/C

A total of 29 gates are divided between Terminals B and C which are primarily used by American Airlines. The two terminals are separated by a mall and food court.

Terminal D

Upgraded in 2008, and with a connecting concourse to Terminal E, Terminal D is a base of operations for Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines, Sun Country and Air Canada. There is also a post-security connection to the shopping centers in Terminals B/C.

Terminal E

Opened in 1977, Terminal E is for Alaska Airlines check-in with departures from Terminal D. Also located in this terminal are JetBlue, Frontier and Southwest Airlines.

Terminal F

Catering specifically to regional flights, Terminal F is the newest terminal at the airport and is used by Contour Airlines and American Eagle among others.

There is an airport train operated by SEPTA Regional Rail that runs between all terminals at Philadelphia International. All stations are located beside the baggage claim area in each terminal and can be accessed via escalator or elevator from the skywalk of the terminal.

PHL Immigration and Security Checks

As is to be expected at any American airport, security and immigration checks are extremely thorough and often result in unwanted delays due to the time spent by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents screening incoming passengers.

American citizens and residents need very little in the way of documentation to enter the United States but this is not the case for visiting non-nationals. Tourists, business people and other non-Americans will require one of two items to successfully gain entry to the U.S.A.


Of the two, the ESTA is easier to acquire. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization which basically describes what it is. It is not a visa but electronic approval to enter the United States which is digitally embedded in a visitor's passport. It is available to citizens of countries who are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) which includes the following countries: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom.

All that is required for an ESTA application is:

  • Valid passport
  • Valid email address
  • Home address and contact phone number
  • Emergency contact phone number and email address

Currently an ESTA is valid for two years and the application process can be completed within as little as three days.

U.S. Visa

Acquiring a U.S. Visa can be a difficult and time-consuming business. The process involves:

  • Specifying the correct visa type
  • Correctly completing the form in full (errors cannot be rectified later)
  • Supplying any documentation requested
  • Paying any fees due
  • Scheduling a personal interview
  • Attending the interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate
  • Collecting the passport with visa attached

In many cases, citizens of non-VWP countries will need the assistance of a lawyer or translator (or both) in order to complete the application process successfully.

Transfers and Ground Transportation

With just seven miles between the two, probably the easiest and most efficient way to travel between downtown Philadelphia and the airport is by rail but this is not the only option available.


SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) operates a regular service between the airport and the city center. Trains also continue on to other nearby locations such as Glenside, Warminster, Wayne Junction and Fox Chase. Downtown to the airport takes around 25 minutes and trains run every half hour on weekdays, hourly at weekends.


Also operated by SEPTA, there are a number of bus routes to the airport from Philadelphia including Routes 37, 108 and 115.


Taxis are readily available at Philadelphia International and can be located by following the sign for “Taxis/Zone 5” which are to be found in baggage claim areas of each terminal.

Uber, Lyft and other ride-share companies operate at PHL from the baggage reclaim area at each terminal.

Car Rental

A number of car rental agencies operate at PHL with most offering shuttle bus rides between the depot and airport terminal.