By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Long-running lease negotiations between Philadelphia International Airport and the airlines that operate there have erupted into a very public verbal battle over plans for a new runway.

At issue is a long-planned, massive expansion of the airport that includes construction of a new runway aimed at easing flight delays.

The airlines would have to foot a hefty portion of the bill, and now US Airways is openly questioning even the need for the runway.

US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher says the real problem is crowded airspace that a runway won’t solve.

“If we built another runway, it would be like building a six-lane on-ramp to a two-lane highway,” he tells KYW Newsradio.  “Until the challenge of airspace congestion is resolved, building a new runway won’t likely ease congestion and minimize delays here at Philadelphia.”

Speaking for the airport, Philadelphia deputy mayor for transportation Rina Cutler sees US Airways’ public comments as part of the bargaining over a new lease.

“This is a negotiation tactic,” she says.  “And I’m certainly hopeful that we can get to a middle ground, where they get pieces of the expansion that they want and we get the new runway.”

The airlines put the cost of the runway at $3 billion, a figured disputed by Cutler.

“We’ve seen no backup documentation that tells us that number is even realistic,” she says, adding that the city estimates the cost at $1.8 billion.

The expansion plan involves the construction of a new runway on the south side of the airport, where UPS is now located, as well as extension of two of the four existing runways.  It also includes an automated “people mover” system, new terminal facilities, a new cargo city, and a ground transportation center.

All of this is to be complete in 2025, though individual portions may be finished sooner.  Some residents and officials in Delaware County oppose the expansion; a portion of the airport is in Tinicum Township.

Lehmacher, of US Airways, is hopeful the negotiations can reach a resolution but warns that the airline’s future in Philadelphia is at stake:

“One of the reasons US Airways is able to compete here is lower costs.  And that’s what we hope to maintain, our cost advantage.  And we’ve very concerned that this expansion as currently proposed really harms us.”

One long-term option, he says, would be a reduction in the airlines’ service in and out of Philadelphia.

Cutler, though, says the city is focused on the big picture, not just on US Airways (which is the airport’s largest carrier):

“They’re concerned about the bottom line and their shareholders.  We’re concerned about the economic health and wellbeing of the region.”

Cutler says negotiations with the airlines will continue as both sides head toward a July deadline.

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