A New Normal in Airport Parking and Transportation

April 15, 2021
Looking beyond COVID-19 to the rebound in travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended the air travel industry in 2020. Even as several vaccines start to roll out, the pandemic and its fears continue to wear on. However, airports can, and should, already include their parking facilities in their overall safety programs. These efforts are essential to addressing traveler concerns and to building their confidence in the airport experience in the months and years ahead.

Forward-looking parking managers realize the time is right to be proactive in preparing their facilities for the forthcoming recovery in air travel. Given that today’s consumers expect smooth, virtual transactions, starting the transition to fully automated, frictionless parking may help you realize benefits sooner than you think.

Disinfection is Fundamental

Frequent cleaning and disinfecting are among the most important, effective and visible steps that you can take to demonstrate the airport’s commitment to the health and safety of air travelers. Shuttle bus grab rails, garage elevator buttons, pay station machines and other high-touch surfaces should be routinely disinfected throughout operating hours. To maximize disinfection efficacy, the CDC recommends non-porous surfaces like arm rests and door handles be cleaned with detergent or soap and water prior to disinfectant application if the surface is visibly dirty. Self-service disinfection offerings like hand sanitizer stations and/or wipes onboard buses serve passengers as well as the driver.

When buses stop circulating for the day, broader disinfection, via electrostatic spraying for example, provides another level of protection from the virus and other pathogens. While exciting innovations are emerging in the marketplace, do not rely on untested methods or products. Whether your facility is cleaned by your own employees, staff from a specialized provider, or a combination of the two, make sure they are trained and follow official guidelines and recommendations from state and federal health authorities like the CDC.

Protections on the Frontline

Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees is another essential and highly visible measure.  At a minimum, equip shuttle-bus drivers, valets, attendants and cashiers with masks and gloves. The World Health Organization recommends washing hands with hand sanitizer or soap and water prior to putting on a face mask. Consider adding plastic shields around the bus driver’s seat as well as valet stands for further protection. It is mandatory that shuttle passengers wear masks when onboard the vehicle. The CDC now requires passengers to wear masks on all forms of public transit, as well as transportation hubs such as airports and train stations.

Relative to self-parking, the valet business has declined steeply. Providing disposable covers for steering wheels and gear shifts can help to reassure parkers that safety is being taken seriously. Valet customers are more likely to return knowing their cars are as safe as when they were dropped off.

Ensuring that employees are aware of self-protection practices like securing face masks tightly and discarding of single-use masks will play a vital role in stopping the spread of infection. All front-line personnel – along with your regular cleaning crews – should be trained in the appropriate protocols and best practices, both for their protection and that of your customers. Expect to reinforce that training on an ongoing basis and to update it as new information emerges.

Keep a Safe Distance

The CDC and other health authorities have highlighted social distancing as helping to reduce the risk of spreading infection. Space markers are an inexpensive means of promoting safe social distancing. Place them on the ground at queues outside terminals, pay stations, parking lot shelters and anywhere else your parking customers may stand and congregate.

Taping off seats on shuttle buses is an effective way to bring passenger capacity within recommended levels. While air traffic has been down, it has been easier to adjust schedules so that more shuttles are in circulation with fewer passengers. That also means that service breaks for disinfection, such as after each loop, are less likely to disrupt passenger traffic flows to and from the lots and garages.

According to an advisory bulletin posted by the Airports Council International (ACI), global passenger traffic volume for the first half of 2021 is forecasted to reach 2.2 billion, a 20 percent increase compared to the same period in 2020. The second half of 2021 is estimated to reach more than 3.5 billion passengers, more than double the passenger volume for the same period in 2020.

As airport traffic gradually increases, it is important to develop a strong safety plan that includes preventative measures like enhanced ventilation systems, physical barriers, and sanitizing stations. Implementing preventative measures like these can help airport operations run smoothly, while prioritizing the safety of employees and passengers.

Sharing is Caring

Travelers will not know what you are doing unless you tell them. Signage – posters, digital, window clings, among others – not only communicates what your customers cannot see, it educates and reinforces the virus-related protocols. This messaging further reassures travelers that airport management takes their health and safety seriously.

Clear and effective signage for parking and transportation services is essential for not only employee and passenger safety, but peace of mind. In a study conducted by the Yale Center for Consumer Insights, COVID-19 bus safety signage like “please wipe down seats” and “please sanitize hands before sitting down” increased the likelihood that participants would ride by more than 50 percent.

Touchless Payment and Beyond

If you do not offer touchless payment at your parking operations yet, COVID-19 is the push you needed. Some options for touchless payment are stand-alone credit card terminals or contactless readers paired with a cellphone app. Fewer surfaces touched can help minimize risk for both customers and your employees.

Eliminate physical touchpoints with a mobile app that allows customers to reserve and pre-pay online. The app generates a virtual ticket with a QR code, like those on mobile airline boarding passes, that opens the lot or garage gate when a driver arrives and again when he or she exits. It is an easy-to-use, time-saving alternative to ticket machines and older systems.

Remember that younger, convenience-loving demographics, among whom mobile technologies are deeply embedded in their everyday lives, are the ones expected to fuel the air-travel recovery. Even the traditionally tech-adverse have embraced ordering, paying for and picking up things like groceries, coffee, and pizza using the same type of mobile app. It is quickly becoming the standard across a wide range of industries as smart-phone adoption has accelerated. According to a February 2019 Pew Research Center study, 81 percent of Americans with a mobile phone had a smart device, including more than half of those age 65 and older.

Adopting these technologies brings you closer to a fully automated operation. The United States is benefitting from the lessons learned from Europe, which adopted the model a decade ago. To date, several of the busiest U.S. airports have successfully switched to frictionless parking.

Looking Ahead

COVID-19 prompted a seismic shift in mindset among airport parking facility managers. Historically, some operators have been reluctant to invest in new systems and technologies until existing equipment had reached the end of its useful life. Many increasingly recognize that they may not be able to afford to wait.

Technology is also essential to being ready for next-generation parking. Future systems will feature flexible rates and dynamic pricing, similar to those used by the airlines, hotels, and car rental agencies. Data-based analysis and algorithms will enable parking facilities to actively manage their space and revenue streams. For example, they will be able to charge a premium for high-demand spots in peak periods, direct drivers to under-utilized lots with lower prices or specials and promote other airport businesses or retail experiences.

In the short term, restoring parking revenue will be dependent on fostering overall air traveler confidence. Long term, we do expect COVID-19 reactionary protocols like frequent high-touch point disinfection, electrostatic spraying, and touchless systems to remain as standard operating procedures.

Once the vaccine is widely distributed and traveler confidence returns, we are likely to see a surge in travel, both domestic and international. By adopting new technology and best practices now, you will be in the best position to reap maximum benefits from this resurgence.

Scott Hutchison is Senior Vice President of Landside Operations, ABM Aviation. You can reach him at Scott.Hutchison@abm.com.