What is So Different About Airport Parking?

April, 2012

Chuck Cullen

I was recently asked to referee a late-evening discussion between two parking professionals regarding the operational differences among parking disciplines.

One administrator took the position that there is no real difference between managing parking at a university, in a city or at an airport. Essentially, they are exactly the same to this person. The other individual argued that parking operations at airports, universities and cities are different and, as a result, managing parking assets at those locations present different challenges to the parking manager.

I responded by saying that the concrete used to construct an airport parking structure is essentially the same as the concrete used in a municipal parking structure. Also, the parking gate used at a university lot to control access is the same gate that is specified for an employee lot at an airport.

My initial response put a smile on one individual’s face, but then I continued. The design of that concrete parking structure and the placement of the revenue control equipment are often impacted by the parking venue.

I was then asked to name just one significant situation or operating condition, past or present, that impacted only airport parking. My response was: “the 300-foot rule.” After all, how many universities had to adopt a government-mandated regulation that prohibited parking within 300 feet of a major parking generator?

Yes, this rule has now been retracted but never eliminated. It could still be imposed on airport parking operations at any time that someone decides to set their shoes ablaze on a plane.

I then continued to point out several other conditions that apply primarily to airport parking operations. The impacts of these conditions must be carefully evaluated for each airport and incorporated into any successful airport parking operation.

Parking at airports is heavily dependent upon something called O&D, origin and destination. Airports often report the number of passengers who use their terminals, but the airport parking manager is primarily interested in the number of passengers that begin or end their trip at the airport. These are the people who are most likely to drive to and from the airport as part of their trip.

Airline passengers who simply make a connection at the airport do not drive locally, so they do not represent a potential customer to the airport parking manager. Taking steps to attract as many O&D customers to the airport parking facilities impacts the bottom line at airports.

Speaking of the bottom line, parking is nearly always one of the top revenue generators at airports. The percentage of revenue generated by parking at airports, when compared to the total airport income, is nearly always greater than at universities or municipalities. The importance of parking revenue to airports will usually ensure that the parking manager has a seat at the table when it comes to allocating budget resources and input on expansion plans.

Another point: Overnight parking is the norm at airports. Most travelers, business people or vacationers, will remain parked for days, a week or even longer. Knowing that overnight parking is common, the airport parking manager must take steps to carefully record the inventory each night and develop an appropriate procedure for lost ticket transactions.

If a university is expecting 5,000 visitors for an event, it can charge a flat rate fee to all incoming vehicles and allow the vehicles to quickly exit after the event. Flat rate or special event parking mode is not practical at an airport. Since fees are based on parking duration, they must be collect upon exiting. Staffing of cashier personnel and/or placement of pay-on-foot stations is more important at airports.

That exiting reality has created another condition primarily found at airports – the exit plaza. That’s a set of exit lanes at one general location. The parking operator can open and close lanes as necessary to correspond to the volume of traffic leaving the parking facility. By having multiple exit lanes at one location, it is possible to provide better managerial oversight of the revenue collection process. The manager also can observe traffic buildup and respond by opening more lanes.

At airports, even the definition of “short-term” parking is different from most other types of parking operations. At retail-oriented parking facilities, short-term often refers to a duration of time with a linked rate structure to encourage that duration. At airports, short-term is often associated with a parking location. Spaces closest to the terminal are usually designated as short-term.

Like retail-oriented parking facilities, the rate structure for airport short-term parking is established to influence the behavior of the parking customer. Parking in the short-term location for more than a few hours will usually result in a fee greater than the all-day rate in the long-term location.

There is also a newer parking service seen primarily at airports – the cellphone lot. Before 9/11, the curbs near airport terminals would be crowded with cars waiting to meet arriving passengers. Some airports even provided free or a very low fee for parking 60 minutes or less. Now, it’s important for security reasons to prevent unattended vehicles near terminals.

In addition, the spaces once used by those waiting for passengers can now generate revenue. To meet a demand for passenger pickup parking, the cellphone lot was invented. In recent years, airports have added amenities to those lots. Many now have flight information displays and vending machines.

Except for a few vehicles used in emergency response situations, employee parking is seldom close to the work site. Often it is located farthest from the terminal, thus requiring a shuttle service to get the employees to and from their vehicles. Shuttle service also is needed for long-term parking facilities.

Validation programs exist at airports, but they generally are used by the airport administration for visitors to their offices. They are not utilized to encourage customers to visit the fast food restaurant located in a terminal.

Also, customer loyalty programs do seem to be on the rise at airport parking facilities. They offer fee discounts, customer amenities (guaranteed space availability, newspaper, bottle of water, etc.) and/or reward points that can be exchanged for items. I’ve never known a university to guarantee parking space availability to a student on campus.

When planning airport parking facilities, one must assume that many parking customers will have some luggage. Consequently, pedestrian walkways, elevators, landings and crosswalks must be able to accommodate both pedestrians and their luggage. That’s usually not a planning factor for municipal or university parking facilities.

There are always some uncertainties in any parking operation. Airports, however, are more vulnerable to the decisions of a few individuals sitting in an office a thousand miles away. When airlines merge or consolidate, there is a significant ripple effect at the airport, and that ripple is felt in the parking as well. If a low-cost airline commences service at a nearby airport, more travelers will go to the other airport, thus reducing parking demand at your airport.

By the end of my “dissertation” regarding the unique features of airport parking, I wasn’t sure if I was able to convince the other of my discussion partners that some distinct differences are important to consider in serving customers of a particular parking environment such as airports.


Chuck Cullen, a Senior Associate at The Integrity Group, can be reached at chuckcullen@integrityparking.com. He also is Chairman of the NPA’s Parking Consultants Council.