Airport parking a hassle? Charlotte wants to let you reserve a spot online

An airplane departs Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Monday, November 21, 2016.
An airplane departs Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Monday, November 21, 2016.

Charlotte’s airport plans to study technology upgrades at its parking facilities to create a whole range of new options for travelers, such as different prices for different parts of parking decks, online reservations and automated payments with license plate readers.

“It’s almost an oxymoron to say innovation and airport parking in the same sentence,” said Brent Cagle, aviation director of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. “That’s changing.”

Charlotte City Council is set to vote Monday night on an $800,000 contract with Innovat International Inc., a consultant that would figure out how to implement the new technology and how much it would cost. The airport is an independently financed, city-owned entity.

Cagle said the changes, more widely embraced in European airports so far than in American ones, could shift how people used to just driving up to the airport and picking the cheapest available space approach parking. For example, he said, few people in Charlotte now even use the airport’s online parking map to see what lots are full before they travel, while in Dublin, about 85 percent of travelers book their parking online before heading to the airport.

“We have hundreds of millions invested in our facilities,” said Cagle, and many parking spaces are often empty outside of peak travel days. “An empty parking spot is no good to anybody.”

Charlotte Douglas’ approximately 30,000 parking spaces are a major source of cash for the airport: In fiscal 2016, they generated $51.6 million in revenue, up 8.5 percent from the year before and accounting for about a fourth of the airport’s revenue.

A view of the helix traveling up to the top of the 7-story hourly parking deck. T. Ortega Gaines

The airport’s last new major parking addition came in 2014, when the $120 million new hourly deck opened in front of the terminal. Charlotte Douglas has increased parking fees twice in recent years, in 2014 and 2016.

Cagle said the new technology isn’t about wringing more revenue from the airport’s parking, but rather using it more efficiently and giving customers more options. Although some spaces or busy time periods could cost more, Cagle said others could cost less, based on demand.

“If it’s in the middle of summer and everybody’s trying to park in the long term lots, but we have thousands of unsold spaces in the decks, why not run a summer special?” said Cagle. “Everybody wins.”

Here are some of the technology-driven changes that could be coming to Charlotte airport parking in the next few years:

▪ Different prices for different spaces, even in the same parking deck: “It’s $20 a day whether you park as far from the elevators or as close to the elevators as you can” in the hourly parking deck, Cagle said. “With some of the new technology, it also allows you to create zones. Maybe next to the elevator is $20. If you want to park at the back of the deck, well, we’ll cut you a break. Maybe it’s $17.”

Of course, that could also mean that the airport might charge a premium for the most in-demand spaces, something Charlotte Douglas would be able to track with new data-gathering technology.

▪ Online reservations and payment: Instead of pulling up and seeing what’s available, future systems could allow people to reserve and pay for parking days or even months in advance, Cagle said. That would require technology such as automated license plate readers to seamlessly register which cars have paid in advance and let them in and out of parking lots, as well as a website and app for customers.

▪ Ease of finding cars: With license plate readers, reservations and more cameras and other systems to track cars’ locations, Cagle said it would be easier for customers to locate their cars. As it stands now, customers who genuinely can’t find their car have to ride around with an airport employee until they find it – a situation that happens in the sprawling surface lots fairly often, Cagle said.

“It can take a while,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo