Airport Parking: History, Hobby and Contentious Relationships


Airport Parking: History, Hobby and Contentious Relationships

If I had to choose the type of real estate development that has been the most challenging for me personally, the parking requirements for aviation terminals to balance the supply/demand needs would be near or at the top of my list. As a professional traveler with expertise in transportation matters, dealing primarily with airport-parking matters has been one of my focused areas.
Perhaps, the start for me was a DC-3 propeller-driven Delta Air Lines flight from Houston’s Hobby airport to Detroit about 1950. The original terminal had only one gate, as I recall, with 50 to 100 car spaces at most. We later expanded from Hobby to a large suburban airport, Bush Intercontinental (IAH)), that was considered able to meet our needs for many years to come. The original plans for IAH called for four equal-size terminals with a road access system that by today’s standards might be considered skimpy.
Parking demand at most airports can be broken down into two groups: short-term parkers (less than 24 hours) and long-term parkers (more than 24 hours). The latter usually drive supply issues, since the number of spaces required in meeting this demand is a substantially larger percentage of the total supply. A further breakdown of demand can be grouped into business, leisure and employee parking space needs. The percentages of these groups vary from airport to airport. Which city the terminal services also plays a major role.
Factors such as parking fees, alternative means of transportation, expected peak occupancy of the terminal, and population densities that the terminals service influence the supply/demand ratio.
In Houston during the 1950s, it became apparent that Hobby airport was limited in size, and, thus, its ability to meet growth needs was problematic. A plane’s carrying capacity was small by today’s standards, and frequencies of flights were much less. Terminals were transfer points from private automobiles to propeller-driven airplanes.
This was my beginning experience with aviation and, more particularly, with the growth that was to occur over the next 60 years. Aviation and related transportation growth has exploded exponentially. Some reasons for this are lower costs, more convenience and greater speed over long distances.
To move people long distances from Point A to Point B has favored air travel over competing transportation choices such as train, bus and personal vehicle. The jet engine-powered airplane helped propel demand at an accelerated pace beginning in the 1960s.
This growth has challenged aviation planners because passenger counts also have increased due in part to other activities such as, for example, gate turnover times. When an airline can load and unload passengers in 30 minutes rather than an hour, the gate throughput capacity theoretically doubles.
Increased car ownership has made the automobile a flexible and low-cost means of travel over the past 60 years. This influenced the preferred choice of arrival at an airport. In effect, the means of arrival such as car, limousine, bus or train still finds the automobile as the dominant choice. Sixty years ago, autos were close to 100% the means of going to and from the terminal. They are still dominant, but compete typically with taxi, bus and limo, and with trains at larger terminals.
This has caused planning experts major challenges at our nation’s airports. The developed area required to park the vehicles far exceeds that required for people to change mode of travel from automobile to airplane. Not only does the ratio normally grow over a period of time, but it also has grown at an alarming rate (except for maybe New York and a few other cities with substantial mass transit alternatives).
One by-product is that, at an airport, parking revenue is often near or at the top as far as generating cash flow is concerned. The revenue is so huge at the large airports that they have been the leaders in the development and purchase of more sophisticated parking revenue control equipment.
(In my opinion, airport cash flow often is not sufficient to cover the costs of construction and operation of parking spaces on-airport. This may come as a surprise to many who think parking should be free.)
Back then, not much consideration was given, in my view, to segregating parking areas into airport employee, short-term parkers and long-term parkers. The parking supply estimated was on the low side, but there were opportunities to expand on-airport supply by multilevel surface parking lots. These and other challenges were duplicated at most, if not all, airports serving large, growing, metropolitan areas.
Around 1970, the off-airport parking industry was inaugurated at Bush Intercontinental as a cheaper means of providing more supply. The other benefit gained by the passenger was the reduction of the search time for an empty space and the selection process of which parking facility was the one closest to the gate where one would depart. Complaints about not being able to find a vacant space during peak travel time were occurring too frequently.
On-airport expansion was being modified with the usual conflict between more parking versus more terminal area versus more gates. Low parking fees and the expanded use of credit cards were two reasons demand increased. The often-contentious relationship between private ownership of off-airport parking facilities and publicly owned on-airport began.
This strained relationship often occurs during low occupancy times when off-airport lots are sucking parking revenue badly needed by the on-airport people. One way the on-airport people even the playing field is to impose an access fee for parking as well as for shuttle bus operations. With this approach, they become partners with the off-airport people. A negative to this approach can result in diminished expansion of off-airport parking, so competition for parking customers does exist at many airports with privately owned off-airport facilities.
In the 1980s, security checkpoints began to have an impact on the time and cost it took to travel from Point A to Point B.
In the 1990s, the personal computer and the Internet began to have an impact on airport parking demand as well as on design. They changed the way reservations are made and how tickets are paid.
If we fast-forward to the 2000s and 9/11, the increased security has caused air travel to take a hit. It now takes dramatically more time to leave Point A to arrive at Point B.
Planners must correctly prioritize their wish list to fit metropolitan area needs, such as how it will be used for long- or short-term customers; security levels high or low; available land for expansion; primary ingress or egress traffic; existing alternative transportation options; and other variables.
In my view, a lack of supply priced at an onerous rate diminishes the attractiveness of an airport.
Competition for the traveling public to use your airport is one matter, and to use only your parking spaces begins to have a negative impact on what should be the objective: low overall cost.
After all, parking spaces are not created equal as far as convenience is concerned, nor in cost of construction for that matter. Political pressure customarily results in the same parking fee no matter where the on-airport spaces are located.
Congestion as a sign of success is far more desirable than the opposite. With this in mind, airplanes as a means of transportation have been a roaring success. However, this continued success has been dampened to a certain extent by, for example, increased operating costs (due to security matters) and fuel costs.
I’m still waiting for a jet-powered backpack that will transfer me from Point A to Point B without having to go to an airport terminal.
Thomas J. Feagins has worked on parking issues at many airports, including HOU, DEN, DFW, MSY, JFK, LGA, MKE, SEA, BOS, ATL, LAX, ORD and SFO. He can be reached at

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Thomas J. Feagins
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