Cell-Phone Lots May Catch On At Richmond Int'l Airport

Jun. 9--Airplanes aren't the only things circling airports these days. Cars do it, too.

But if you orbit the airport grounds, officials say, it's a waste of fuel and can tie up traffic.

A possible solution is being studied at Richmond International Airport: One or more surface lots reserved for motorists waiting to pick up arriving passengers.

They're known as cell-phone lots because the waiting driver typically uses a cell phone to get word from friends and family ready for a ride.

The lots would be close enough to the terminal to wait for someone, but not so close that they would tempt people to use them for free parking.

Providing such waiting zones has caught on at larger airports, such as Washington-Dulles International. Richmond could have its first cell-phone lot within a year.

The Capital Region Airport Commission put $700,000 in its fiscal 2007 budget for planning and building one to three asphalt parking lots. The governing board hopes to finance 80 percent of work with state and federal money.

Airport officials cited the environmental benefits of the concept. Drivers would be required to turn off their engines while waiting.

But mostly it's about making the airport more convenient.

"Right now, no one really knows when to pick up passengers," said Beverley "Booty" Armstrong, an airport commissioner from Richmond.

Impatient drivers can create traffic jams in front of the terminal at peak arrival times, forcing police to ask motorists to keep moving.

The staging areas also could improve the condition of the grassy shoulders along Airport Drive. On a recent tour, brown patches were evident where motorists had pulled off and created their own cell-phone lots.

Preliminary design work is under way for one to three surface lots, with as many as 40 spaces each.

The airport commission must pick one or more sites for the lots. One location being studied is a field beside the entrance road -- Airport Drive -- on the north side of the grounds. It takes less than three minutes to drive to the terminal.

"It's land we own, and a good proximity," spokesman Troy Bell said.

A second possible location is a grassy spot on airport property near Charles City Road. A third location was not identified.

Cell-phone lots began popping up around the country when Sept. 11 led to more stringent security and restrictions on cars in front of airport terminals.

Washington-Dulles International Airport opened a 100-space cell-phone lot late last year.

The airport erected signs and police handed out pamphlets saying, "Don't wait here, go to the cell-phone lots," spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

"It gives people an alternative to driving into a parking lot and paying and waiting," Hamilton said.

Like Richmond, Washington-Dulles offers a grace period for free parking -- but many motorists still won't pull in.

This has led to arguments between Dulles' police and motorists, she said, "when someone says, 'Why can't I wait for five minutes?' "

Reagan Washington National Airport also plans to build a cell-phone lot, Hamilton said.

Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, converted two parking areas into cell-phone lots about a year and a half ago.

"People were driving around in circles," said spokesman Richard Fernandez. The new lots have helped ease congestion, he said.

Washington and Houston require motorists to stay with their cars while waiting for the call.

Airport officials in Norfolk and Newport News have not jumped on the cellular bandwagon.

"We took a quick look at it," said Kenneth Scott, executive director of Norfolk International Airport. Norfolk will hold off until traffic congestion warrants it, he said.

"I hate to see it, because we'll have to cut down some trees," Scott said.