Charlotte Airport's Cheap Rates Mean Full Lots

Cheap parking at Charlotte's airport is helping create an expected parking crunch this weekend, and airport officials are urging travelers to carpool, catch a ride or take the bus.

With about half of the airport's 19,424 public parking spaces costing just $3 a day, the airport says such inexpensive rates mean drivers don't think twice about parking there -- for whatever reason.

Some groups traveling together take more than one car, for example. Other travelers might park there to rent a car, or leave their car when they meet friends or family for a road trip down Interstate 85.

Most of the year, that's no problem.

But over Thanksgiving and Christmas, those extra vehicles attracted by the cheap rates can cause the airport's lots to overflow.

"Sometimes we're our own worst enemy," said airport director Jerry Orr.

Officials expect the Long-Term lots to fill by Friday and for the Overflow lot to hit capacity Saturday.

Nationally, airport parking shortages around the holidays are nothing new. Even at airports with large supplies of private, off-site parking, travelers sometimes have trouble finding spaces.

The difference with Charlotte, though, is that parking rates at its airport are considerably cheaper than elsewhere. In Charlotte, only one in seven parking spaces costs more than $6 a day.

The expected parking squeeze comes even as the airport has added more than 6,000 parking spaces in the last couple years. It opened a new 3,000-space parking deck this summer and expanded its Long-Term and Overflow lots.

The airport expects to start construction on a new deck next month, but it won't be finished until 2007. Orr said the decks could have been built sooner, but that the airport delayed the projects because of the 9-11 attacks, which suppressed demand for air travel.

Last year, though, the number of people starting their trips in Charlotte surged 17 percent to nearly 2.9 million -- more than in 2000, according to federal data.

"Now we're back bigger than before, and we wish we had built these decks sooner," Orr said.

Asked if the airport planned poorly, Orr said: "I don't know that it's bad planning that you get fully filled up one or two days a year." The alternative, he said, is spending money for parking spaces that sit unused almost all of the year.

Since Orr started at the airport in 1975, it has never turned vehicles away because it lacked space. If the public lots fill this time, officials say they'll try to accommodate additional cars elsewhere on the airport's property.

Officials say they have no plans to raise parking fees.

Around the airport Monday afternoon, there were still thousands of spaces available in the Long-Term lots, and the Overflow lot on the other side of Josh Birmingham Parkway was not yet open.

Aboard a parking shuttle, Fred Knatt said he finds airport parking to be easy and cheap. He and four co-workers from a construction consulting firm drove to the airport in two cars, he said, because they couldn't all fit with their luggage in one.

"You can park here for a week for $21," he said. "That's a lot cheaper than a cab."

Charlotte Observer

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