A New Normal in Airport Parking
Today’s best practices will likely outlast the pandemic itself
The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended the air travel industry in 2020. Even with hopes rising for a vaccine, the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight. However, airports can (and should) already include their parking facilities in their overall safety programs. These efforts are essential to addressing the concerns of travelers and to building their confidence in the airport experience in the months and years ahead.
Forward-looking parking managers will take things further because this is the ideal time to prepare their facilities beyond the eventual post-pandemic rebound and for the future. Right now, competition from ride-share apps has fallen off dramatically and a higher percentage of current flyers are driving themselves to the airport1. 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 before they ever set foot in a terminal. Shuttle bus grab rails, garage elevator buttons, pay station machines, and other high-touch surfaces should be routinely disinfected throughout operating hours. Placing hand sanitizer and/or wipes onboard buses serves 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, don’t rely on untested methods or products.
PROTECTIONS ON THE FRONTLINE
Providing personal protective equipment to employees is another essential and highly visible measure. At a minimum, equip shuttle-bus drivers, valets, attendants and cashiers with masks and gloves. Consider adding plastic shields around the bus driver’s seat as well as valet stands.
Shuttle passengers should be asked to wear masks onboard. Since virtually every airline and U.S. airport have already mandated masks, travelers should expect the requirement in any and all airport area where they are around other people. As the pandemic wears on, wearing a mask may soon be considered a “normal” part of the travel experience.
Relative to self-parking, the valet business has declined more steeply. Providing disposable covers for steering wheels and gear shifts reassures parkers. Valet customers are more likely to return knowing their cars are as safe as they were when they were dropped off.
All of these 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 to bring passenger capacity within recommended levels is effective. 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.
SHARING (INFORMATION) IS CARING
Travelers won’t know what you’re 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.
TOUCHLESS PAYMENT AND BEYOND
If you don’t yet offer touchless payment at your parking operations, COVID-19 is the push you needed. Among the options 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 altogether with a mobile app that allow 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’s an easy-to-use, time-saving alternative to ticket machines and older systems.
If you’re hesitant, 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’s 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 device2, including more than half of those age 65 and older.
COVID-19 has 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 very 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 manage actively their space and revenue streams. For example, they’ll 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.
The outlook for airport parking illustrates why it is important to be proactive in order to be better positioned for the forthcoming recovery in air travel. Once a vaccine is available, we are likely to see a surge in travel, both domestic and international. By adopting new technology and best practices now, you’ll be in the best position to reap maximum benefits from this resurgence.
Scott Hutchison is SVP of Landside Operations, ABM Aviation. You can reach him at Scott.Hutchison@abm.com.