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Charlotte Douglas airport warns of major parking headaches this summer

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    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
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    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
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    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    An airport security officer directs traffic at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as construction continues on the new parking deck, right, Wednesday, May 21, 2014.
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    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

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Get ready for a summer of parking pain at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Officials are warning travelers to expect full parking lots, traffic backups, and longer waits for shuttle buses – more than a third of which were broken down Wednesday.

And those are just the biggest problems. Add to that more fliers, changing valet service providers, road and parking deck construction, shifting traffic patterns and a new, temporary shuttle bus route that adds 10 minutes to the trip from parking lot to terminal. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said travelers should be ready for the hassles.

“We’re going to struggle through the summer,” said Cagle. “Parking will be tight. Parking is going to run at capacity for most of the summer.”

The airport can’t open new overflow lots, Cagle said, because it has too few working buses to pick up people there. “I don’t have enough buses to service the lots I have,” Cagle said.

Charlotte Douglas has a fleet of 61 shuttle buses, with an average age of seven years and 300,000 miles. “Our bus fleet is well beyond its useful life,” said Cagle.

The airport needs 49 of those 61 buses running to move people from all the parking lots to the terminal and back with an average wait time of less than 15 minutes. On Wednesday, however, only 39 buses were running – and three of those lacked air conditioning, on a day when temperatures hit the upper 80s.

“We’re running them because they can run,” said Cagle. “We’re already 10 buses down. We can’t afford to be 13.”

Charlotte City Council voted last week to approve buying up to 30 new shuttle buses for $5.8 million. The first of those is set to arrive this month, and by the end of June, Charlotte Douglas should have 20 new buses running.

Cagle said that will help, but not fully solve, the bus shortage. Charlotte Douglas will seek permission to buy more buses in the coming weeks.

Charlotte Douglas is in the midst of $1 billion worth of expansion projects that Cagle said will expand parking capacity, build bigger roadways in front of the terminal and grow the airport in the long term. For now, however, many passengers are feeling the growing pains.

The airport is down about 5,000 parking spots from last year, since tearing down the old hourly parking decks. The replacement hourly parking decks won’t be completed until November.

The airport also recently opened part of its new entrance road, which is causing delays as people get used to the new traffic patterns.

“They’re just used to the roadway being the same as how it’s been for 30 years, and everything’s changed,” said Cagle.

Another problem with the new road is that it has forced shuttle buses from the daily decks to take a longer loop, adding another 10 minutes or so to each shuttle’s trip to the terminal and back.

Parking lots are filling up fast, Cagle said. The airport expects daily lots – favored by business travelers – will be full by Tuesday every week this summer, with long-term surface lots – favored by leisure travelers – full by Wednesday or Thursday.

Tuesday afternoon, only Long Term 4 was open, with all other parking decks and lots closed. By Wednesday, Long Term 1 and 2 were open, but Long Term 4 was closed. To see which lots are open, you can check the airport’s website before you leave.

Cagle said people who must park at the airport might have to use the valet parking options if all the lots are full. The valet lots are more expensive, costing $14 to $28 a day vs. $5 a day for the long-term lots. The long-term lots will go up to $7 early next year.

Valet parking won’t be without its hassles, either. The airport is changing valet providers at the end of the month, and customers have complained of long waits and lines to retrieve cars from the valet.

The airport is also seeing more local travelers, adding to the stress. Although more than 75 percent of passengers at Charlotte Douglas are connecting to other flights, local demand has been strong.

Cagle said 27,000 passengers went through Charlotte’s security checkpoints last Sunday. That’s just 3,000 shy of the airport’s biggest day ever, during the Democratic National Convention.

“That’s bigger than Thanksgiving,” said Cagle. “And it was just a Sunday in May.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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