November 19, 1998 -- Here are some numbers to savor while you're driving to the airport for your next flight: The AAA says U.S. airlines carried 599 million passengers in 1997, a 34 percent increase during the last 10 years. By 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration says, the passenger count may jump to 900 million, another 50 percent bump.
So I only have one question: Where the hell are all these people gonna park when they get to the airport?
This is no idle query. Few airports in the United States have room to expand their parking facilities. Traffic at most major metropolitan airports is already gridlocked during peak periods. Only two major hub cities--New York and San Francisco--even have plans for a new mass-transit link to airports and the airlines are already whining about those proposals.
So where are we gonna park at the airport? Rick West thinks we'll all be parking off the airport. He's so sure of it that his company, AviStar Airport Valet Parking, is buying up off-airport lots around the country and whipping them into a national chain.
In just two years, AviStar has bought up parking lots near seven airports (Chicago O'Hare, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Bradley in Hartford, and the New York trio of Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark) and built a facility near Miami International. If West has his way, this nascent empire of 14,000 parking spots will be augmented by four additional AviStar lots every year.
"Most people don't even know about off-airport parking, so I know the concept of a nationwide chain sounds odd," admits West, a second-generation parking man and AviStar's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "But off-airport parking is the future."
Right now, of course, the vast majority of business travelers fall into two broad categories: Drive-yourself individualists who park their personal vehicle at long-term airport lots and corporate types who rely on chauffeured "black car" service. West is convinced he can convince both types to switch to AviStar.
First of all, West explains, an off-airport parking lot is just like any other piece of real estate. The three most important things to consider are location, location, and location.
"The key is being well located off the approach road to the airport so travelers don't have to go out of their way to find us," he says. "The majority of our parking spots are actually within seeing distance of the airport. We're a little further out at Pittsburgh and O'Hare, but we probably can shuttle you to the terminal faster than if you choose an on-airport long-term lot, search for a spot, unload your car, then take the airport transportation to your terminal."
In fact, it is service that West hopes will be the selling point to convince drive-yourself types to switch to an AviStar facility. He believes travelers will pay a little bit more--in Philadelphia, for example, AviStar charges $7.95 a day to park compared to the $6.50 daily tab at the airport's long-term lot--to get a lot more service.
"My pitch to individual travelers is consistency of service," he says. "I'm selling comfort and stress reduction. All my lots offer valet parking so you don't have to go circling in search of a space. I'm going to help you with your bags. My shuttle is going to be waiting to take you to the terminal. When you come back, I'm going to have your warm, snow-free car waiting for you."
There are other perks, too. AAA members receive a 10 percent discount. Telephone reservations are available. There's a frequent-parker's club with useful benefits. AviStar can wash, wax and detail your car while you are away. And in New York, you can even arrange to have your car transferred between any of the three lots if you aren't returning to the same airport from which you departed.
West is also courting the corporate travel managers who dispatch all those black cars. His simple pitch: Get your travelers out of black cars and save big bucks.
"Cost-cutting is what drives corporate travel managers and getting travelers to switch from black cars is a big deal." he says. "If you're spending $60 a trip to get an employee to the airport in a black car, you can save an enormous amount of money if you move just 10 percent of them into their own cars.
West is also smart enough to know that corporate travelers accustomed to a company-furnished black car won't easily switch to driving their own car. His solution? Bribe the travelers directly.
"We give travel managers inducements to convince travelers to use their own cars," he explains. "New corporate customers get three months of free car washes and seven days of free parking for a personal vacation. That gives the traveler a reason to get out of the black car."This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.