Airport Curbside Congestion


Airport Curbside Congestion

Technology has transformed how people use airport terminals, with profound impacts across the aviation industry. In this post and subsequent follow-ups in the series, we will explore one of these aspects in detail: overcrowding and congestion on airport roadways and curbsides outside the terminal.

For most of the existence of commercial aviation, the terminal ticketing lobby was a mandatory first stop for all departing passengers. If you didn’t wait in line at the check-in counter to exchange your ticket for a boarding pass, you didn’t get on a plane.

Today, the airlines’ mobile apps let customers buy tickets, check in, change seat assignments, locate gates, find places to eat and shop, track bags, learn where to claim checked luggage, arrange ground transportation, and navigate from A to B.

As a result, there’s no mandatory stop until you reach the
security checkpoint.

Unless I’m checking a bag, I’ll breeze past the ticketing lobby and head straight to security. The bag-check line will also soon fade away as airlines migrate to self-baggage-check through new kiosks and even permanent or “print-at-home” luggage tags as the next evolutionary step. In the meantime, self-serve kiosks and better computer systems have made the process for those who do print boarding passes and check bags in the terminal much faster and more efficient.

This technological revolution has changed the way we use ticketing lobby infrastructure. Airlines – which created the new paradigm to streamline their processes following mergers and other cost pressures – no longer need as many ticket counters. Interior terminal renovations can capitalize on this shift to support more passenger throughput and peak-hour capacity.

Previously, an airport designed for 1 million annual enplaned passengers needed a lobby that could process 1 million passengers per year. Now, that same airport with streamlined passenger processing can handle 4 million to 5 million passengers annually. About 40% to 50% of them will visit a counter or kiosk in the ticketing lobby, and that number continues to fall.

Outside the terminal, it’s a different story.

Highways, access roads and curbsides designed for that 1 million-passenger airport become gridlocked by the increased traffic, which includes – thanks again to technology – more people getting dropped off at the terminal by ride-hailing companies such as Uber or Lyft, instead of driving their own cars to an airport parking lot.

Congestion on these landside access points has moved the passenger bottleneck from the terminal’s interior to its exterior, bringing new challenges and new opportunities.

The bad news for airport executives is that overcrowded access roads and curbsides create more frustrated customers and drive down passenger satisfaction ratings.

Here’s the good news: By creating new ways for passengers to reach the terminal from remote access points, we can alleviate this bottleneck and extend the useful life of an existing terminal.

In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at some of the transportation, wayfinding and environmental aspects of landside congestion and the range of solutions available, including remote rental car and parking facilities, automated people-movers, cellphone lots, and even new terminals dedicated to international passengers.

A High-Traffic Problem

Since the dawn of aviation, the limiting factor on airport capacity has been the size of the terminal. I wrote above how technology has shifted the passenger bottleneck from inside the terminal out to the curbside and access roads. In this blog post, my Gresham, Smith and Partners colleagues transportation engineer Michael Flatt, PE, and signage and wayfinding expert Jim Harding, SEGD, take a closer look at exactly what’s happening on those curbs and roadways.

Flatt: Traditionally, arriving and departing passengers all converge on the curb outside the main terminal. This is the airport’s front door, and it’s become a crowded place. Car pickups and drop-offs, taxis, shuttle vans and buses  have to dodge one another (and parked police cars) as they load and unload passengers. Pedestrians getting in and out of vehicles or crossing lanes of traffic add to the congestion as well.

Harding: Any time pedestrians and motorists compete for the same space, safety becomes a top concern. Frustration leads to erratic behavior by motorists and pedestrians alike. With millions of passengers using airport curbsides around the world every day, the one-in-a-million event can occur with alarming frequency. In addition to safety concerns, a curbside crowded with many different user-types might not serve any of them efficiently. Creating multiple front doors can improve efficiency, safety and passenger satisfaction.

Flatt: Although there’s no definitive metric, we’ve seen that airports generally start to separate arriving and departing passengers at the curbside when they reach about 1 million annual enplaned passengers.

One solution is with a multi-level curbside such as the one GS&P designed for Richmond (VA) International Airport (RIC). Each level can be dedicated to different types of vehicles or passengers. This smooths traffic flow, improves safety, reduces delays and increases terminal capacity. Departing passengers at RIC get dropped off on the upper level. Arriving passengers use the lower level, which has a second curb dividing private and commercial vehicles.

Other ways to create additional access points include consolidated rental car centers (ConRACs), curbside valet service, dedicated international terminals, and relocating certain landside users (buses , rental cars and shuttles) to remote curbsides. Automated people-movers (APMs) can provide a convenient each of these facilities and the main terminal.

Airports also can encourage people to perform one of the most common curbside functions – waiting – away from the main terminal. Cellphone waiting lots and short-term parking with a grace period before getting charged are both good options.

Harding: Many airports use a combination of methods, which can get confusing without an integrated wayfinding system that helps people make the right decision at the right time. At one airport that recently hired GS&P, some passengers have difficulty finding the rental car return facility. They end up driving around the terminal multiple times in search of their destination, creating even more landside congestion.

We’re working to alleviate that problem by improving the visibility, legibility and placement of the roadway guide signs.

Flatt: Or consider an airport with parking or mass transit options directly opposite the terminal. Skybridges or tunnels can provide a safe pedestrian connection from one to the other and reduce congestion on the roadway in between, but that connection isn’t always intuitive.

Harding: That’s why good signage and wayfinding is so important. The only passengers using a terminal curbside should be the ones an airport wants there. That sorting process starts well away from the terminal on the highways and roads leading to the airport. GS&P-designed roadway signs leading to Denver International Airport, for example, provide a 50% to 100% increase in legibility over the previous system.

Flatt: These days, one of those lanes might be marked for ride-share. Since Uber and Lyft began operations a few years ago, ride-sharing has become a popular way to get to and from the airport. Because many of these passengers would otherwise drive themselves and park, it’s also become another cause of congestion. To smooth the flow of traffic and pedestrians using this option, airports are beginning to carve out dedicated areas of the curbside for ride-share pickup.

How ride-sharing impacts airports financially is something else to watch. Parking is the No. 1 revenue source for most airports, and the $1-$2 fee that ride-share users pay for airport trips hardly offsets the loss of daily parking fees. On the other hand, ride-sharing is tailor-made for people who want mobility without a vehicle of their own. Time will tell if mobile people spending less money on car ownership begin to spend more on air travel for pleasure and/or business.

Harding: The real-time tracking technology used by ride-sharing companies can also help airports reduce landside congestion in a couple ways. First, airports can make people more likely to use cellphone waiting lots by adding digital signage with real-time flight status updates. Along the same lines, digital signs at curbside bus stops can let departing passengers know how long they have to wait. If it’s more than a minute or two, many bus riders might choose to grab a cup of coffee and wait inside – especially when the weather is bad.

Flatt: It’s important to take a holistic approach to the problem of curbside congestion because this is one of the first opportunities an airport has to enhance its customer experience. Multiple front doors can be crucial to achieving a completely integrated network for transit, automobiles and pedestrians that provides safe, convenient and efficient access for all modes and users. It’s an interesting challenge.

Expanding the Curbside
The evolution of technology and how people use airport infrastructure has led to three basic strategies for addressing curbside congestion: expanding the curbside, creating multiple front doors, and connecting the dots. I recently spoke with Altan Cekin and Ben Goebel, two of GS&P’s top aviation architects, about different approaches airports are taking to implement each of these strategies.

Ben Goebel (BG): We achieved a similar effect at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) by adding canopies along the open-air curbside that connects FLL’s four unit terminals. These sections of curbside previously offered no shelter from Florida’s hot sun and unpredictable weather, which forced vehicles and pedestrians to crowd around terminal entrances. With the new canopies in place, pickups and drop-offs are now occurring over a larger curbside area, alleviating some of the congestion immediately in front of each terminal. The canopies also gave FLL the flexibility to relocate their valet parking operation from the garage to the curbside between terminals, which makes valet service more convenient for passengers.

Altan Cekin (AC): For airports that don’t have that kind of underutilized curbside on hand, cell phone waiting lots and free short-term parking near the terminal have proven quite effective. One can think of these solutions as a remote application of the same principal at work with the canopies at FLL and GRR – to provide vehicles more usable space close to the terminal without congesting the curbside directly in front of it. The cell phone waiting lot at Tampa International Airport (TPA) includes restrooms and real-time flight information and is widely used by airport customers.

Airports also can encourage people to perform one of the most common curbside functions – waiting – away from the main terminal.

Wilson Rayfield (WR): Now that’s great customer service. Since it’s my home airport, I’m partial to the two-level curbside at the main terminal of Richmond International Airport (RIC). As we discussed earlier in this series, multi-level roadways can improve the flow of traffic around terminal curbsides by separating arriving and departing passengers or private and commercial vehicles. They have the additional benefit of increasing capacity by a factor of two or more without requiring much additional footprint.

Creating Multiple Front Doors

WR: Expanding the curbside can make a significant difference, but larger airports often need to go further by creating additional access points or “front doors” that serve different modes of ground transportation that passengers use to enter or leave an airport.

AC: One method is the consolidated rental car facility, known as a ConRAC. At TPA, passengers currently pick up and drop off rental cars across the street from the main terminal. Returned vehicles are then ferried offsite for maintenance and long-term storage. This current layout requires pedestrians to cross a 4-lane roadway, which impedes traffic flow. The shuttling of vehicles also creates a lot of extra traffic at the terminal. That’s not ideal from a safety or efficiency standpoint. To get those rental cars away from the terminal and improve safety for pedestrians, TPA is now building a ConRAC south of the main terminal to house all of its rental car functions at one remote location. As a side benefit, the old rental car area can be converted to passenger parking, a key source of revenue for the airport.

WR: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) went so far as to build an entirely new terminal and parking garage for international passengers. The Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal creates a new interstate access point on the opposite side of the airport from the main (now domestic) terminal. This new front door pulls all international passengers from the existing terminal’s roadway system. Since it’s connected to the domestic concourses by the underground Plane Train, one of ATL’s two Automated People Movers (APMs), this project also effectively expanded the airport’s curbside area. Domestic passengers can also use the international terminal to enter the airport and pass through security before taking the Plane Train to their domestic gates.

Connecting the Dots

BG: The introduction of any remote facility creates another issue: how to transport the passengers using them to and from the terminal. Buses  frequently fill that role, but they further compound vehicular traffic and curbside congestion. Airports are solving this with APMs, which can keep those passengers off the roadway, place them into the terminal well away from the curbside, and provide efficient transportation to non-airport facilities. The ATL SkyTrain, for instance, connects the airport’s domestic terminal to the new Georgia International Convention Center (GICC) and nearby hotels and restaurants before continuing on to the airport’s ConRAC. GICC is becoming very competitive with the Georgia World Congress Center, the third largest convention center in the United States, because the SkyTrain makes GICC so convenient to the airport. The ability to reach it without a taxi, rideshare or rental car is a nice feature.

AC: TPA is also looking to take shuttle buses  out of the equation with a new APM network connecting the terminal to the both the ConRAC and economy parking garages. Right now, buses run about every 10 minutes or less between the main curbside and the two economy garages. The garages have a total capacity of about 11,000 spaces, and they fill up quickly during peak travel seasons. Once it’s in operation, the APM will remove those people and shuttle buses  from the curbside. With trains departing every 2.5 minutes and the economy garages about a 3.5 minute trip from the terminal, this project won’t just reduce curbside congestion; it will also make TPA’s economy parking an even more convenient option.

AC: Down the road, TPA also plans to build a remote commercial curbside next to its new ConRAC. When that happens, a significant portion of ground transportation operations could be diverted to the new commercial curbside. This will allow passengers to use the ConRAC’s APM station instead of the main curbside – further contributing to the airport’s efforts to reduce congestion outside the terminal.

Environmental Benefits

To wrap things up, I sat down with Grant Clifford to discuss the environmental benefits of addressing curbside congestion and what the future may hold for airport planners everywhere. Grant is GS&P’s principal in charge of the consolidated rental car facility (ConRAC) and automated people mover (APM) project at Tampa International Airport (TPA), a $730 million program currently under construction. Some of the lessons learned implementing this program will be used as examples during this final post. 

(WR): We’ve discussed in previous posts how reducing curbside congestion can improve the passenger experience and extend the useful life of an existing airport terminal. One aspect we haven’t focused on yet is the beneficial impact for the environment.

Grant Clifford (GC): It’s an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked, and TPA offers a good example. Once the airport’s new ConRAC and APM are in service, they’ll eliminate more than 8,500 trips per day along the airport’s main roadway just from shuttling rental vehicles alone. A remote curbside is being constructed as part of the program, with additional future expansion capability planned for, which will help to reduce curbside congestion as traffic grows over time and also help extend the useful life of the main terminal complex.

WR: The APM connects to the existing economy parking garages, which will allow the airport to eliminate shuttle bus service between the terminal and these facilities. In total, TPA expects 2.7 million fewer vehicle miles traveled on airport roadways every year, reducing annual carbon emissions by 1,617 tons. In addition, a new solar panel array on the south economy garage can generate 5 MW, which is equivalent to the energy required to run the APM train. The panels will cut airport emissions even further and reduce operating costs by about $8.5 million a year.

GC: Of course, it’s not unusual for departing passengers with rental cars full of heavy luggage to drive up to the terminal to check their bags before returning the car so they don’t have to haul the bags around after. That’s why the design for TPA’s ConRAC includes a remote bag check facility to further reduce rental car traffic at the terminal curbside and provide a high level of customer service at the ConRAC. 

WR: What’s interesting is that these projects weren’t really on TPA’s radar until recently. The airport’s previous master plan called for the construction of a second terminal but no ConRAC or APM. Once TPA realized the passenger bottleneck wasn’t inside the terminal but just outside it at the curb, their capital improvement plans changed dramatically.

GC: That’s a key point. As improved technology allows terminals to process more passengers with less real estate, airports should make sure their master plans are still positioning them to meet future demand in the most surgical and efficient way.

WR: Technology is always changing as well, so you can’t ever stop preparing for the future. Look at how airlines are beginning to use RFID chips instead of paper barcodes to tag and track luggage. By doing so, they’re making baggage handling faster and more efficient, which opens the door to new possibilities like separating the bags of arriving passengers by their mode of transportation away from the airport.

GC: It’s not hard to imagine arriving passengers who will leave the airport via rideshare, public transportation or personal vehicles all going to different, conveniently placed baggage claim areas. Passengers heading to a ConRAC or airport hotel might even find their luggage waiting in the trunk of their rental cars or in their hotel rooms.

Airports could one day direct bags to different carousels or claim areas based on an arriving passenger’s chosen mode of ground transportation.

WR: Reinventing baggage handling in this manner could further increase the capacity of existing terminal buildings, and use of APMs could drive even more demand for remote facilities. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but airports should consider preserving space for something like it in their master plans so they have options when the time comes.

GC: It really boils down to the fact that as airports decentralize their curbs, customers will come to expect the ability to check and claim their bags in a decentralized way as well. By extension airports will want to meet that need.

WR: Long-term, we may even see airports unbundle their customer experience along the lines of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air by charging a fee for the convenience of using the terminal curbside while keeping access to remote curbsides and facilities free. Airports have already taken a step in that direction by letting passengers choose to pay more to park close to the terminal or pay less to park farther away.

GC: The future of airport curbsides could be remote and might be here before we know it.

Wilson Rayfield, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, leads the Aviation Market at Gresham Smith and Partners. Contact him through the firm’s website at


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