Empty spots, so why closed lots?

Rising airfares may curtail some travel this summer, but they likely won't curb complaints about parking at the Charlotte airport.

In particular, some travelers are convinced that the airport keeps long-term parking lots – which cost $3 a day – closed when they're not full to force cars into more expensive daily parking areas. Airport officials say there's no conspiracy, just a system that's efficient for the airport and its customers.

The start of the summer travel season over Memorial Day weekend brought fresh gripes from people steered to the daily lot. The combination of leisure and business travelers could make such rerouting more common in the coming weeks.

At $6 a day, daily parking at Charlotte/Douglas International is cheaper than at other Carolinas airports. And while there are more $3-a-day spaces – about 8,600 – than anything else, airport officials don't promise that cheap parking will be available, especially at busy travel times.

The problem, some customers say, is that some of the cheap spots are empty, even though the long-term and remote lots are closed. In this era of record-high gas prices, they say, paying double what you expected for parking is even more painful.

John Peterson of Fort Mill, S.C., said via e-mail that he saw multiple spaces in more than one closed lot at about 2 p.m. Friday.

“It was very evident,” said Peterson, a sales representative for a manufacturer, calling the routing of traffic to daily lots “a prime instance of fleecing.”

Not so, said Will Plentl, the airport's deputy director. Instead, he said, it's a matter of managing customer traffic and shuttle buses efficiently.

Reopening a parking lot with only a few empty spaces – out of more than 1,000 – would leave travelers hunting for those spots, possibly to the point of missing a flight, Plentl said.

“Then the complaints would be more vocal,” he said. “We opened the lot, and they couldn't find an empty space.”

That's why the airport doesn't reopen a lot until at least 2 percent of its parking spaces are empty, Plentl said. In the smallest $3-a-day lot, that's about 20 spots; in the largest, almost 70.

Otherwise, Plentl said, travelers must try daily parking. That costs twice as much, he said, but “they won't spend 30 minutes trying to find an empty spot.”

Holidays, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, often bring the biggest crowds, Plentl said. Parking lots also may consistently fill up from late June to early August, when schools are out, he said.

Airport officials originally expected an increase of as much as 5 percent in passenger traffic this summer before the recent surge in oil prices and airfares, Plentl said.

Although that may limit some growth, he said, “we are preparing for another heavy summer season.”

About those signs

Airport customers also have complained of trouble finding an open parking lot, specifically making sense of the signs that the airport posts along Josh Birmingham Parkway.

“Those handwritten directional parking signs are what I expect to find at a carnival,” said Ben Lambert, a Realtor in Charlotte, “not a major airport.”

Lambert previously lived in the Washington, D.C., area, where “you need a Gold credit card to pay for parking” at airports, he said. Charlotte airport parking is cheap, Lambert said, but the signs are confusing.

Another traveler, Trey O'Neale of Concord, also said parking rates are reasonable, but that traffic management is lacking. While leaving the daily lot Friday, he said, only two exit lanes were open, creating long lines of customers waiting to pay.

Both traffic flow and signs should improve next year through projects now under way, Plentl said.

Paying for parking will be easier in a new revenue-control system, he said, including machines through which customers can swipe credit cards, similar to those at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. More than half of customers now pay with credit cards, Plentl said, and upgrades could cut wait times at exits by two-thirds.

Airport officials also expect to take bids later this year for a new system of programmable signs, Plentl said. Besides real-time updates on lot closures, the new signs may be able to show special messages, he said.

That would replace the sandwich boards installed a few years ago, after air travel bounced back from a post-9-11 dip, Plentl said.

“We went with simplistic signs trying to show where open lots are,” he said. “All that was designed to be temporary.”