More Airports Tell Drivers Just Where to Go -- to Get Parking

Faced with high demand for limited space, U.S. airports are turning to technology to get travelers parked faster.

Baltimore/Washington International, for example, has installed a parking-information system aimed at taking "the guesswork out of parking," says spokesman Jonathan Dean. "It's like something you see in the Jetsons." Dean says.

The BWI system relies on a system of car sensors, electronic signs and indicator lights to speed travelers to open parking spaces. The airport also uses roadway signs and a low-power radio station to tell drivers which garages are closed.

Other airports, such as Reagan Washington National, use the Internet to give up-to-the-minute information, and Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul are moving that way. Some, including the Chicago airports, issue e-mail alerts.

The push to deliver current parking information to travelers comes as airports are increasingly looking to differentiate themselves from competitors: other airports and off-airport parking lots.

"Parking is the first and last impression of an airport, and you want that experience to be a positive one," says Joseph Wenzl, a business development executive at Federal APD, one of the largest installers of electronic parking systems.

What airports are doing:

*Electronic signs. Airports have been early adopters of the electronic "space-finding" signs that provide motorists with current information about the number of spaces available in a garage or lot. More than a dozen airports feature the system, including BWI, Boise and Dallas/Fort Worth. Fort Lauderdale and Seattle will introduce it later this year.

One system used by Federal APD relies on wires installed below the concrete that detect when cars enter or leave the garage or a specific level of the garage, and maintains a count. The company installed such a system for parking at Detroit's McNamara Terminal.

BWI uses a system of sensors and lights suspended over each parking space in its daily and hourly garages. So even at a distance, a motorist can spot a green or red light indicating whether a space is open or occupied. Illuminated signs at the ends of each row display the number of spaces available in that row. Blue lights point out handicapped parking areas.

"It works well," says traveler Glenn Baer, a procurement executive based in Annapolis, Md., who uses BWI.

Raleigh-Durham and Chicago O'Hare place signs at inbound roadways that tell if a particular garage is open or full. Signs at Phoenix Sky Harbor indicate the number of spaces available level-by-level. They're helpful, says Jim Mock, a Phoenix sales executive. But he wishes they could also show the sections of the level where spaces are more likely to be found. "To try to find the 10% that may be available is often frustrating," he says.

Milwaukee's system addresses such frustration. Its main garage has space-count signs at the entrance of each floor, as well space-count signs at each of the three sections of the level.

*Internet. Customers of Reagan Washington National, where parking is almost always tight, can check out the airport website for real-time information on the number of spaces in the garages and lots before they leave home.

Denver plans to introduce this month a similar Internet service. The Boston Logan website tells if a garage or lot is open or full, but offers no count.

Travelers using Chicago O'Hare or Midway may sign up at their websites for an e-mail alert when garages are full. A traveler may dictate specific dates or the days of the week to receive the alerts. The messages are sent three times a day or when the status of a parking garage changes.

Minneapolis-St. Paul plans to introduce a new page on its website in March that tells customers updated parking conditions -- the percentage of spaces available -- for each garage. Later, the airport will offer text messaging on parking conditions.

*Radio and telephone. Many airports stick to the old technology -- low-power radio broadcasts on airport property, or a call-in number. Milwaukee and Fort Lauderdale are among the airports that broadcast by radio.

Phoenix, San Francisco and Burbank, Calif., have a phone number for parking information that is answered by a real person. Minneapolis also plans to introduce an automated parking hotline this month.