Charlotte/Douglas Airport's Travelers Park With Style

The tip jar fills more slowly now, a few hours after early-morning business travelers flooded Charlotte/Douglas International Airport's valet parking service.

Valet Nicole Dwyer, 19, just arrived, and she's not worried. She's on what the airport valets call the "money shift" -- afternoons when returning travelers get their cars and give the most cash. But for Rocky Patel, 21, the workday ends in a half-hour and he'd welcome, shall we say, a few more chances to assist customers with their bags.

Then, a white-haired man in a tie pulls up in a silver Mercedes SL500 Roadster. He finishes talking on his cell phone. As he opens the door, Dwyer and Patel rush to greet him.

Valets at the airport never know when or if they'll earn a tip. But for the airport, valet parking has been a surprising financial success since it debuted in 2003.

One evening last week, now in the midst of peak travel season, the service kept a record-breaking 320 cars overnight. At a rate of $19 a day, the airport figures it will take in more than $1 million in revenue this year on valet parking. Running the service costs about half that; the remainder goes toward operating the airport.

Charlotte/Douglas is considering building a separate valet parking deck near Wilkinson Boulevard to accommodate the demand.

When the airport started the service, airport director Jerry Orr says he figured the cost would limit valet parking's appeal. He realized the popularity extended beyond business travelers when he saw families at Thanksgiving pulling up, with bags and kids everywhere.

The airport hired Parking Solutions of North Carolina to run the operation. The company started in 1994 when Morton's of Chicago opened uptown. It has since expanded to more than a dozen restaurants and clubs uptown, as well as hospitals and private gatherings.

In a little over an hour one recent early afternoon, the fliers using the service were all businessmen: A Wachovia portfolio manager, heading to New York with a bag of golf clubs. A consultant heading to Newark. A FedEx salesman who tipped $10.

Celebrities who have dropped their cars at the curb include wrestling legend Ric Flair in a Porsche SUV and Carolina Panthers star Julius Peppers in a Range Rover, valets say.

As for the white-haired man in the Mercedes, Patel takes his suit carrier and bag from the trunk as Dwyer gets his name: Bob Johnson, 62, a machine-tool company owner from Weddington.

Why did he use the valet?

"Good service," Johnson tells a reporter. "Convenience. It's a lot less hassle, and it's not that expensive."

Like many fliers, he doesn't tip as he heads out of town. Many give cash only upon returning.

The valets say they're not disappointed. He'll be back.

And before him will come other cars, and other chances.

Here's how valet parking at the airport works:

Drivers drop car at the curb, toward the end of the "Departures" level (by Concourses D and E). Upon return, they call when flight lands and retrieve car at the same place.

Cost is $19 a day. Car washing, oil changes and state inspections are available for extra fee.

Airport pays Parking Solutions of North Carolina the cost of operating the service, plus $900 a month, plus 5 percent of any profit.

Valets say they earn $7 an hour, plus about the same amount in tips.