“Have it your way” has long been a theme in the food industry but these days it’s also become a mantra for airport parking. Airports are working harder than ever to improve the passenger experience so that their patrons can have it their way from the moment they drive up to the airport and set foot on the pavement in the parking garage.
"Customer expectations are increasingly becoming more demanding for easy access and in terms of choices," says Al Pramuk, the executive vice president of Aviation at Gresham, Smith and Partners (GSP) in Alpharetta, Ga. He explains airports have responded to parking issues by focusing on improving access and integrating technologies designed to enhance the passenger experience.
And, they have good reason for taking that approach. "Airport travel is two things for everyone: expensive and stressful," says Stephen Callender, owner of Stellar Impeller, a public relations and brand identity firm, as well as a frequent passenger in and out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Callender says he feels innovative parking technology relieves his stress, gives him more leisure time at the airport, saves him money, and enhances his travel experience.
Chuck Reedstrom, project manager at Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. of Houston, Tex., feels that technology is changing so much and so fast that when airports implement new parking technologies, he writes specifications for a 10-year useful life. "It's all about customer service: getting patrons through the entry and exit faster, and today’s new parking technologies are capable of doing that," he says.
From individual space signage and in-garage baggage claims, to a variety of premium and valet services, airports have found updates to the parking garage often generate valuable business opportunities.
And with increasing competition from off-airport parking services, beefing up customer service at airport parking lots is essential. Other than airline landing fees, the fees these lots generate are a top revenue contributor that helps front the costs of operating and maintaining the airport.
Making Money Easy
Airports constantly seek ways to offset the cost of the airlines, according to Pramuk. Airport managers want to keep passengers from choosing off-airport parking venues, and to do so, "options have to go beyond way-finding signage on the highways," he says.
Reedstrom remarks that tollbooth technology (using AVI transponders) has become one of his favorite parking innovations, and the fastest payment option being implemented at six or seven airports nationwide. While he says the frequent users "absolutely love this," premium patrons are even more excited. Regular toll users can drive right into an airport parking garage and have the parking fees added to their monthly highway toll bills, using the same device. Some airports are teaming with local toll agencies, while others are implementing their own programs.
Pramuk says that this technology can be implemented in a variety of ways, from daily travelers to Gold members-only admittance. It's here to stay, he says, and will only be gaining more notice in the years to come as airports find innovative ways to make it work for them and their customers.
On the topic of speed, Arun Gulati, the vice president of Technology Services at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), says that his parking facilities have gained a lot of it. In 2007, DTW implemented its 1>2>3 Park Credit Card In/Credit Card Out program. The airport has more than 18,000 parking spots, and prior to adding this automated system, airport personnel manned each booth in every garage. "This offers a convenience to the person coming to park," says Gulati. He says that a traveler/visitor swipes his or her card upon entry, but does not receive a traditional ticket. The information is stored electronically until the person leaves and swipes the same credit card at an unmanned booth, and their payment is processed automatically.
Travelers may still take their ticket and go to a cashier if they are uncomfortable leaving this card info, but Gulati says that 80 percent of DTW’s parking business are by credit card and 20 percent of those transactions have already transitioned to its 1>2>3 option. The system also takes a picture of the vehicle license plate, so upon exiting, it can be compared to the credit card number for security purposes. DTW brings in $65 million per year through this automated system.
Wide Open Spaces
It used to be that a large sign outside the airport told passengers whether or not there was room in a parking structure, and if they were lucky, the number of spaces. Today, signage technology has improved to the extent that it directs passengers to open spots. A single-space sensor system, with a sensor placed above each parking space, relays when a vehicle pulls in or out. If it's in use, the LED light above the space turns red. If open, it turns green. "We're seeing a lot of interest in that option," says Reedstrom.
The number of spaces available in any garage can be communicated through signs around the airport: a large sign at the entrance and then others on each level. Additional signs within individual drive aisles, offer passengers information on the number of spaces available in each aisle, and in each direction. In addition to on-site information, Reedstrom says that smartphone apps and websites are also ways for airports to communicate parking info to the public.
Advanced parking signage also offers a benefit airports may not consider initially. From a sustainable approach, emissions and fuel usage is reduced because vehicles are not aimlessly cruising up and down drive aisles trying to find an open spot, Reedstrom explains. A study he spearheaded at in the Johannesburg, South Africa, airport revealed the average search time dropped from 26 minutes to 2.5 minutes upon installation of the single-space sensor program. It saved the airport about 8 tons of emissions each year, "which can be substantial," he says.
Give the Green Light
Airport parking is going green in more ways than just eliminating CO2 emissions. With more than 100,000 electric cars currently operated in the United States, and more being added each day, charging stations are becoming a demand, not a luxury, for public parking areas, airports included. This year alone, electric car sales nationally are predicted to add 70,000 vehicles to the roads.
Gulati says that DTW has had electric vehicle stations since 2011, and they have been a very popular option. Two are on the 8th floor of the McNamara Terminal parking deck, the largest airport parking structure in the world, and two are on the 4th floor of the Big Blue Deck near the North Terminal. There is no additional fee to use these spaces, and they are conveniently located by the terminals. With the Chevrolet Volts being manufactured just 20 miles down the road, DTW is excited to offer this service for its passengers.
Allen Will is the director of Business Development and Programs with Telefonix Inc., based in Waukegan, Ill. The company has launched the L1 PowerPost, a commercial Level 1 charging station. It's a lower cost per unit than a Level 2, and uses less voltage, which is a good fit for an airport setting. The L1 is a 120-volt, 16-amp unit. Will lives in Chicago and drives his car into short-term parking for three- or four-day work trips. "The shortest trip from an airport is a day trip," he explains, a minimum of 10-12 hours. In just eight hours, Will's Chevy Volt can have a complete charge using the L1 PowerPost, while a Level 2 unit can do it in four. Will says that at an airport, the Level 1 unit is completely sufficient, and will save an airport money, even offer the ability to install more charging stations. "You don't need the higher-powered equipment for these types of facilities," he says. "However, I'm not disparaging Level 2 units. There is definitely a market for them too."
Will says that an electric car charging station is a sound business investment for an airport. It can also be a money-maker, whether charging more for the spot, or developing a marketing plan around it.
"People are starting to ask for it," he says of electric car charging stations. "The airports see this; the electrification of the automobile is coming because of Federal fuel standards."
A Partnership that Pays
For those who don’t want the hassle of parking, a completely new option has hit the streets in 19 cities worldwide. Callender explains that Car2Go is a car-sharing program which uses a fleet of modified Smart and electric Smart cars to help people move around, including to and from airports. He uses a mobile app to find available Car2Go cars nearby, as well view their interior and exterior condition, and fuel levels, before every trip.
After determining the best car for him, he reserves it online and has 30 minutes to reach the vehicle. The keys are left in the vehicle and accessed by using a member card and tapping it on the windshield, which unlocks the driver’s side door upon approval. "Inside, there's a touchscreen on the dash where I push a smiley face or sad face to signify the interior and exterior conditions of the car," add Callender.
He also explains that gas cards are left in each car for refueling purposes. Users are charged by the minute, 35 cents each, which he says is cheaper than a taxi. And for airport services, an extra $5 charge is applied, a great benefit for an airport to work out a partnership with Car2Go. This is a partnership that pays, in dollars and customer approval ratings.
In fact, Callender and his wife were among the first to bring a Car2Go rental to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport upon leaving for their honeymoon in April. "We were so excited to see that they'd worked out an agreement with The Parking Spot, because the option before was to have our friends crawl out of bed really early in the morning to take us to the airport," he says.
He says that being car-less is quite common for younger Austinites, and this service makes the airport a more attainable location for them. Upon returning to the airport, a shuttle is ready to take them to their next Car2Go, and an affordable trip home.
Customer service is of utmost importance in the airline/airport industry, but in the parking garage, it’s growing at astonishing rates and with high-end services that high-end customers appreciate.
A common challenge for airports is to reduce terminal curbside traffic. A trend that started in European airports is slowly infiltrating parking garages in the United States. Pramuk explains that the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which opened last May, was designed by GSP to have a baggage check-in area right in the parking garage. Passengers appreciate the convenience of not having to carry their bags any further, and the airport eliminates extra congestion in the terminals.
This concept is also being employed at remote parking locations, like those at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The satellite parking structures are about a mile from the airport, but passengers can park, drop their bags at a kiosk, then take a shuttle to the terminal. Pramuk explains that every 20 minutes, the checked bags are delivered directly to an airport’s baggage screening matrix inside the terminal.
Finally, for premium customers, agreements are being made with third-party vendors to pick up bags at a traveler's hotel. They are then brought directly to the airport and checked in, bypassing the hassle altogether for the passenger.
However, platinum perks are becoming available for more than just baggage conveniences. Using a Web-based system, passengers can reserve, pre-pay and also ask for certain amenities, all before a foot touches the gas pedal to drive to the airport. From car washes, to services such as oil changes and mechanical repairs, and membership valet services that ensure prime parking, this sector has become a "huge business" for airports, says Reedstrom.
While consumers may not be able to have parking totally "their way," airports are using technology to get pretty close as they drive amenities to the next level and contribute to an airport's bottom line, rather than take from it.
BIO: Jen Bradley
Bradley is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis. She specializes in writing about aviation issues and can be reached via her website www.bradleybylines.com.