D/FW AIRPORT -- If you're headed to the airport and don't know where to stash the car while you're gone, expect to be wooed with gifts, discounts, extra services and plenty of parking.
Free bottled water and newspapers, $9 coupons, carwashes, oil changes and valet parking are just some of the inducements that Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and nearby parking-lot owners are wielding this weekend to survive in the highly competitive bid for parkers.
"It's a real battlefield," said Tom Lombardi, whose company closely watches the business of airport parking lots across the country.
His online company, AirportParkingReservations.com, not only consults with others getting into the parking business; it also reserves spaces for travelers at more than 200 parking lots at 65 airports, including D/FW.
"The airports have always taken for granted parking revenue because demand was always increasing," he said. "Airport parking is very competitive now."
For the longest time, airports across the country mostly dominated the $2.2 billion niche of the parking industry because they offered the most convenience with their close parking spaces, experts said.
D/FW Airport has seen its parking revenue grow 55 percent, from $53 million in 1995 to $82 million in 2004. But each year since 2000, it's been up and down.
The turning point in the airport parking industry came in 2001, when the number of air travelers dropped dramatically. That meant parking revenue also slumped.
Business travelers -- who were willing to pay the higher prices for convenient, close parking at the airport -- stopped traveling.
Leisure travelers filled the void, but they were generally more cost-conscious than business travelers, experts said. That opened the door for off-airport parking companies to lure travelers away.
Now officials from D/FW Airport say they are battling to win them back, and executives from parking companies say they're doing all they can to keep the foothold they've gained over the past few years. It comes at a time when the airport already feels pressure to increase revenues that are not directly tied to the volatile passenger airline business.
There are 10,070 parking spaces sprinkled around eight lots outside D/FW. The airport owns an additional 39,988 parking spaces on its 13 lots. Prices for off-airport parking range from $5 a day to $22. D/FW's daily prices range from $6 to $16.
D/FW, one of the world's largest airports in terms of land mass, says it has enough room today to handle everybody who parks away from the airport.
The airport's highest occupancy during peak times is about 23,000 to 25,000 parked cars, said Dean Ahmad, manager of revenue management at D/FW. Earlier this week, that got as high as 27,000 cars. That means the airport has almost 13,000 empty spaces - a 32 percent vacancy rate.
"We definitely would love it if everybody who is parking off-airport parked with us," said Ken Buchanan, executive vice president of revenue management for the airport.
But that would mean driving some of the parking companies out of business. It's not an unheard-of idea, experts said. Some airports on the East Coast have tried with mixed results to use their eminent domain powers to buy out parking-lot operators so that the airport is the only source for parking.
Executives for D/FW said competing with the off-airport parking operators is ultimately good for consumers because it increases the amount of services and keeps prices down.
Because of that competition, Ahmad said, parking on the airport's property is a tougher sell these days.
One of the biggest competitors to the airport is The Parking Spot, a Chicago-based company that owns and operates two lots at the north and south ends of the airport. The lots offer a total of 3,793 spaces.