Detroit Airport Parking Paying to Ease

Detroit Metro Airport plans to start installing a parking system this month that airport officials say will make it easier for travelers to hit the road after flying in or picking up passengers.

But the $5.8-million system will eliminate more than 80 jobs, a result local union officials hope to stop.

For drivers who want to use credit cards, the system should cut the time they spend waiting to pay for parking. It also should eliminate the need for travelers to keep track of flimsy time cards.

With the automated system, a driver would slip a credit card into a machine that would keep the number on file and spit out the card. When leaving a structure or lot, a driver would slip that same credit card back into the machine, which would tally the total, charge the credit card and give it back to the driver with a receipt. Drivers who want to use cash can still do so through a cashier.

Metro hired Ascom Transport System Inc., based in Switzerland with an office in Norcross, Ga., to build the system. Ascom Transport officials could not be reached for comment.

The same system is running at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Miami International Airport, Metro Airport CEO Lester Robinson said.

At Metro, those who park in the airport's yellow lot likely will see the change first by the end of the summer. The airport expects to start using the new system in the blue deck by the end of October and in the McNamara Terminal by spring.

"This is automation. We think it's a customer-friendly type of automation," Robinson said.

Parking at the McNamara garage is automated to a degree. Drivers who park there can pay using machines inside the terminal, making it faster to drive out of the garage. Robinson said the airport might remove those machines if it is apparent that travelers prefer the new system.

The new parking system would save the airport $2.6 million annually in labor costs alone, but the union that represents the employees who would lose their jobs when the new machines are used says replacing people with machines is a bad idea.

"People having problems tend to like to talk to people. I think most customers like dealing with people more than machines," said Steve Hicks, president of Teamsters Local 283.

On top of that, Hicks said, it represents more job losses in Michigan. The state recorded a 7% unemployment rate in April, one of the highest in the nation.

"You're talking about people's livelihoods," he said.

The union, Hicks said, is seeking information from the airport about how it decided to purchase the automated system. It also has asked the airport to negotiate to save those jobs or at least offer a severance package.

The parking system will, for the most part, eliminate two types of jobs, Robinson said. Once the system is entirely installed, it is expected to eliminate about 65 cashier positions, leaving about 35 cashiers at its yellow lot, blue deck and McNamara garage. Hicks said cashiers make about $11 an hour. Metro Airport contracts with Nashville-based Central Parking Corp. to manage its on-site parking.

The system, which includes cameras, will count the cars in each lot and keep track of how long they've been there. That feature replaces the need for about 20 employees who do the same at the decks and yellow lot.

"To move forward and to progress and to become a modern airport we need to provide that kind of service to our patrons," Robinson said.

Becoming a more modern airport is a priority for Metro Airport, which leaped from being considered one of the worst airports to one of the best after the $1.2-billion McNamara Terminal opened in 2002.

Airport officials hope to make another leap in 2008, when a new 27-gate terminal is slated to open, replacing the aging Smith Terminal to house most of the airport's carriers. That project, Robinson said, will create jobs at the airport. The airport, he said, is also seeing growth in the number of concession jobs it offers, which are expected to grow by 214 jobs to 2,313 at the Smith and McNamara terminals by the end of the year.

"We're very mindful of people losing their positions and we try to steer folks into those other areas so they could look for opportunities elsewhere," Robinson said.