Tech Bytes

Like other airports and businesses, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is always looking for ways to improve customer service, increase revenue, and decrease costs related to parking facilities. The public’s embrace of automated teller machines (ATMs), pay at the pump fuel sales, and e-tickets for airlines led the airport staff to explore a similar concept in the parking garages. “We were looking at how can we improve things and make it faster, better, and more convenient for the customer,” says Arlie Johnson, assistant airport director, landside operations.

The solution is an automated, ticketless payment system called E-Park, deployed in September 2003. When a patron arrives at the parking facility, he or she inserts either a credit or debit card. The software recognizes the payment method, date, and time, and the user then parks. Upon exiting, the user inserts the same card used upon entering, approves the total, chooses to receive a receipt or not, and exits.

The whole process takes most users between ten and 20 seconds, says Jeff Courteau, manager of parking systems. “Very seldom does anyone need to queue up behind someone else,” says Johnson. “In most cases, they just go right to the exit machine. It’s just a plain and simple process.”

Johnson says 2004 was a record year for parking revenue, up some 23 percent from $45 million in 2003 to $55 million, the single greatest source of revenue for the airport. “And in that same time period,” he adds, “Our passenger traffic was up 10.6 percent.” Also during that time, staffing of the parking payment booths decreased from 117 full-time positions to 78. “We’ve eliminated a third of our parking staff and that is a substantial savings for us.” Johnson estimates that processing customers with staffing takes about four times as long as it does with the automated credit or debit exiting.

For the Lindbergh and Humphrey terminals at MSP there are a total of 32 parking exit lanes, all of which feature E-Park. Of those, some seven are still staffed by cashiers. Additionally, Johnson says the airport is finding that, going forward, the number of exit lanes will be reduced because of the efficiencies gained through the technology.

Courteau says that while credit card expenses increased because of the increased volume of transactions, the decrease in staffing and the efficiencies achieved with the technology save the airport some $70,000 net, annually. “We recovered our investment in the first year,” adds Johnson.

In 2003, at the most congested time for the parking facilities, Courteau says a patron could spend some 17 minutes in line to pay. Now, with E-Park, the “most [time] you’re going to spend in line is 20 seconds. That’s customer convenience.”

Much of the success of the E-Park system at MSP is attributed to the marketing campaign that accompanied its deployment. According to Johnson, the airport used airport signage, radio, billboards, and two videos that aired on CNN, broadcasting throughout the terminal to promote the new service. “Wherever we had people standing around, like elevators and lobbies, we had signs with pictures on them explaining how to use E-Park,” says Courteau. According to customer feedback, airport signage appears to have been most effective in alerting travelers to the alternative payment method.

The biggest challenge in the deployment of the system, says Courteau, was people having their credit or debit cards ready when they entered the parking plaza.

To assist E-Park users, the airport had ambassadors waiting at the parking entry to inform users of the system and to guide them in the process. “I think for many customers the natural tendency was to reach out for the ticket button,” explains Johnson. “So it was a matter of making them aware that there was a quicker, more convenient method.”

And travelers through MSP are definitely aware and taking advantage of the system. At the end of April, E-Park utilization was up around 67 percent, according to Johnson.

In an effort to increase usage, the airport in November 2004 increased the parking rates by $1 per day, while also offering a $1 per day discount for E-Park users. Johnson says the airport does not have any designs on eliminating cashiers altogether from the parking facilities. “There are always going to people that lose a credit card or have a lost or mutilated ticket or just wish to pay by check, so we don’t envision cashiers going away completely.”

On May 1, the price of parking was increased again by $1. However, those patrons using E-Park receive a $2 discount. As of presstime, Johnson says the usage of E-Park was up to 73 percent. “That extra dollar is more noticeable for some people,” he says. “A dollar wasn’t a big attention getter. We think the $2 discount is truly grabbing people’s attention.”

To alert patrons of the system, the airport uses electronic signs from Brookings, SD-based Daktronics. “The signs have given us a wonderful opportunity to bring to the attention of the public the advantages of E-Park,” says Johnson. Courteau adds that with the color and animation capabilities of the signs, “We’ve been able to put messages up that people would have to be asleep not to see. We have our E-Park logo above the lanes and now the $2 discount is flashing out there about two feet wide.”

Johnson says complaints about the system and the pricing increase have been few. “If we converted back to the cashier system we would have a lot of unhappy customers today.” Courteau says another reason the E-Park system has been so successful at MSP is that it was deployed “enterprise-wide. We have the E-Park lanes everywhere.”

The same technology has also been deployed for the commercial vehicle lane at the airport. Called E-Trip, Courteau says utilization is at some 96 percent.