Those familiar Avis and Hertz shuttle buses and vans might soon become a thing of the past at more and more airport curbsides.
To reduce chaos at increasingly crowded curbsides, airport officials are herding car rental franchisees into “consolidated” operations with their competitors at one site, usually removed from the airport’s terminals.
The goal is to streamline ground traffic by moving with special shuttle buses people needing to pick up and drop off rental cars.
The concept is known as a consolidated rental facility (CRF) in forwarding-thinking airport talk. Cleveland, Dallas and San Francisco blazed a successful trail with the idea. As more and more airports move to build CRFs, some will even upgrade to automated people movers (APMs).
Traffic is up, up and up
The reason why CRFs are even discussed is simple: Aviation’s success challenged most airports’ ability to handle incoming and outgoing passengers when they are on the ground.
Before World War II very few people flew in commercial aircrafts. That began to change after the war, reaching the level of around six billion passenger-miles in 1960. That was impressive at the time, equivalent to someone flying around our planet 400,000 times in one year.
Little did flying buffs then know that by 1980 world passenger traffic would be 10 times higher. It tripled again in the next two decades, to around two trillion passenger-miles last year.
In the United States, air traffic is a part of seasonal life. North America accounts for almost half of the world’s passenger traffic, at almost 1.5 billion one-way trips a year. That means that, per capita, there are two roundtrips annually.
Although one out of every two air passengers gets to the Zurich Airport in Switzerland by train instead of car, in North America most get to airports on rubber-tired passenger vehicles. More and more, they are rental cars employed by the fast-growing fly-and-rent crowd.
The Auto Rental News 2000 Fact Book estimates that total car rental revenue in the United States grew from $15.6 billion in 1997 to $19.8 billion last year—a healthy three-year jump of 27%. Car rental fleets now total almost two million vehicles.
The book predicts even faster growth—46%, to $28.9 billion in 2005. Currently, more than a third of that revenue comes from airport locations.
As a relatively new field, the car rental industry often does not speak with one voice. Companies are extremely competitive and reluctant to share information. Airport rentals only began in earnest in the 1980s. However, the bus and van services that shuttle fliers to car rental facilities do contribute to the traffic that navigates airport roadways. The growth in car rental buses and vans adds to congestion at airports.
Airports also became familiar places to the general public, compounding traffic congestion. They continue to expand into complex hubs of retail and other commercial activities. Many are also taking on cultural (e.g., museum exhibits) and residential (hotel and pied-a-terre apartments) elements. In addition, there are literally thousands of airport employees.
Parking is very often another major headache. However, it has also become big business, charging and making millions of dollars. Thus, airport authorities often choose to streamline and regulate commercial ground traffic rather than restrict private car use in a battle over limited real estate.
Reducing chaos at the curb
One of the scarcest commodities at an airport is curb space.
Hordes of vehicles want to converge into very limited space. It’s another reason why airport authorities are creating CRFs and attendant shuttle services. By relocating and reconfiguring car rental facilities, the remaining vehicular chaos is a little more manageable.
Plans for the Miami International Airport (MIA) illustrate that very well. They include not only parking and car rentals, but also access to rapid transit and intercity trains.
Planners started developing a concept for the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) in the early 1990s. MIA’s tight horseshoe shape with long concourses radiating out from it probably gives it the least curb space per gate of any major airport in the country. Unless it diverts significant volumes of traffic, curbside flows will grind to a halt. The traffic between the MIC and MIA will be so intense that officials plan to implement an APM instead of deploying buses over the two-mile distance.
Two airports in heartland cities already relocated their airport car rental activities into a CRF. Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport opened its CRF in 1998. Eight rental companies used to be on airport grounds but, after many rounds of meetings and negotiations, they all agreed to move to the new center just north of the juncture of interstates 71 and 480.
So far, auto rental franchisees seem happy with their new digs, and airport officials are happy to clear terminal roadways of eight fleets of competing corporate vans and buses.
However, a transportation fee is added to each rental contract. In 1999, it was set at $5.30 to generate the $3 million estimated to cover the costs of the shuttle operations. That would make the average cost for shuttling each fly-and-renter about $2.65.
Etna Parking is under contract to operate the service. They use 23-seat vehicles, manufactured by Champion, to provide 10-minute headways. They carry about 2,000 passengers a day two miles along an indirect route through the highway spaghetti. In addition, each car rental company pays the airport 10% of its gross revenue and a monthly rent.
The CRF shuttle operations are of bolder proportions at the main airport in the far-flung Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metroplex. There, 15,000 to 20,000 air travelers are transported each day to a sparkling marble-bedecked complex that stands on a 250-acre site. It was opened in the spring of 2000 to serve DFW’s string of terminals spread out over airport land that is larger than Manhattan. To handle higher passenger loads, which can surpass 60,000 per day in peak holiday periods, a fleet of 40 buses is on hand to cover the four or five miles to the CRF.
At DFW, the charge on each car rental contract is $3 for each rental day. That stream of revenue goes to paying for bonds that were sold to build the $157 million center. The costs of the bus fleet and garage are included in the package.
Cleveland, Dallas and San Francisco airport officials created a new way to fund the purchase and operation of buses. Their fleet operations have their own peculiarities: ready finances without the hassle of collecting fares from up-scale passengers, service over a fairly short and simple route in a well-secured environment and state-of-the-art maintenance facilities.
This may well be a bus manufacturer and operator’s dream market. Prospects for CRFs to proliferate rapidly over the next decade are excellent. In addition to Cleveland and Dallas, seven other airports have CRFs in operation and many more are underway or planned in the United States.
Car rental companies, at first reluctant to lose control of the quality and individuality of their shuttles by merging into a common service going to a CRF that includes all their competitors, now seem pleased with this new trend. Typically, they can have more space at the CRF. For the public, the advantages of more frequent common shuttles are clear, and the higher level of competition among car rental companies should bring down prices.
Growth over the next few years should be so fast that ways to economize and improve are being explored and incorporated into CRF designs and operations. The key issue seems to be a CRF design that does not favor one company over the others.
In fact, car rental companies prefer to have individual facilities centers around a common shuttle station. If the service provided by the shuttle can be free of delays from roadway congestion, so much the better.
Upgrade to an APM?
Avis and Hertz strive to provide high standard shuttle services for their business-oriented car renters; other companies serve vacationers and frugal travelers less concerned with amenities.
That was one reason there was reluctance regarding consolidation proposals by car rental companies. So far, CRF services seem to be bringing standards up to business class.
Companies, their employees and the fly-and-rent public seem pleased. According to Simon Ellis of Hertz, APMs are a way to lift those standards even higher and free them from increasingly congested roadways. APMs are more expensive to build, but they are cheaper to operate once in place. He should know: 81% of Hertz business is at airport locations.
At what density of traffic does it make sense to invest in an APM? There is no easy answer to that; it depends on how many passengers are to be hauled and over what distances. If it is 10,000 a day, an APM will probably not be economic. The cost of APM infrastructure obviously depends on the terrain and land costs over that distance. Thus, if a CRF is located more than a mile or two from air terminals, as in the case of DFW, then the cost of an APM becomes too high. The trick may be to combine car renters with other kinds of airport users wishing to move away from the baggage reclaim to their ultimate destination.
There are those who’ve parked their cars in remote, long-term Park+Fly facilities. There are also those seeking to move by rail, even if the station is not right below or nearby the airport terminal. Rationalizing airport-CRF traffic may require combining car-renting passengers with others seeking parking and regional transit services.
Newark, N.J., already did that with its automated monorail that carries long-term parkers and car renters. The monorail has two stations with individual car rental facilities around them, and the other end is being extended to a regional rail station. Airport planners in Minneapolis are putting a 1,100-foot APM to remote parking, a CRF and a light rail station in a tunnel.
San Francisco Airport consolidated car rental facilities some distance from its terminals in 1998 on only 27 acres of land. A contractor’s fleet of 45 large GMC coaches is currently used to carry 20,000 to 22,000 passengers a day. That will change at the end of this year, when a $1 billion APM is scheduled to start interconnecting service between terminals, remote parking and the CRF.
Whether by bus or APM, expect more and more fly-and-rent passengers to be moving between airports and CRFs as we move forward in the 21st Century.