Arrivals, departures, tuneups Convenience: For busy airport travelers who haven't got time to wash their cars or change the oil, Satellite Auto has a solution.

June 29, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Whenever Joe Poncharik drove out to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the auto repair shop owner would look at the thousands of cars parked in satellite lots and shake his head.

Many of his regular customers had such busy schedules that trying to carve out snippets of time to get work done on their cars frazzled them.

"At the airport, I'd see this ocean of cars and I would say, 'Can you imagine if you had a place where people could drop their cars off and get detailing and oil changes done when they were away?' " he said. "I thought there was a real market for it."

So, Poncharik shut his shop in Millersville and pooled his money with two other investors in November 1996 to open Satellite Auto, about two miles from BWI Airport at 7060 Aviation Blvd. The parking facility offers to do detailing, washing, oil changes and tire rotations, among other services, on cars while their owners are away.

Satellite Auto epitomizes a small but growing trend in airport parking across the country, experts say. Regarded by many travelers as one of the most inconvenient, nerve-racking and much-dreaded experiences, airport parking is slowly turning consumer-friendly, with competition among off-site facilities driving some operators to throw in such service perks as oil changes and travel agency booths.

Parking facility operators need to tell travelers, "This is a more valuable place for you to park than a competitor," said Larry Donoghue, president of Larry Donoghue Associates. The Chicago-based parking consultancy has compiled reports and surveys on airport parking.

"These are things that will endear the patrons to the service. It's more service-oriented parking," he said.

Donoghue estimates that only about 10 percent to 15 percent of airport-managed and private parking facilities offer such extra services. He said the first such facility was a parking operation near Greater Pittsburgh International Airport that began offering detailing and travel agent services about 10 years ago.

But the trend really started picking up speed about five yearago, Donoghue said.

During the airlines boom of the late 1980s, private operators over-developed, he said.

"Operators had more spaces than were needed. So what the very competitive operators tried to do was offer better customer service."

At BWI, among the three off-site parking facilities, Satellite Auto is the only one offering oil changes and detailing. The facility, which has a 140-car capacity, is the smallest among the private operators. Park & Go has 1,400 spaces and Airport Fastpark has a 1,026 spaces.

Satellite's cleaning prices range from $10 for a hand wash to $135 for full detailing. Customers can pay $21 for an oil change or as much as $145 for Motorvac Service, which includes a variety of maintenance work.

These costs are tacked onto the facility's parking fees, which are $12 a day for short-term parking, $8 a day for cars left more than two days, and $5.50 a day for cars parked more than two weeks.

At BWI, the short-term garage's daily rate is $12, and it costs $7 a day to park at the satellite lots.

Since Satellite Auto opened, it has logged more than 11,000 customers and built up a group of about 40 regulars, many of whom are business travelers who pass through almost every week, Poncharik said.

"This is the easiest way to take care of their cars," he said. "If their car needs something, it's just easier to do this than take care of it on a Saturday."

One-stop shopping

Not all customers are travelers. Some work near BWI and leave their cars at Satellite for the day for maintenance. The facility offers to pick up customers and drop them off at their request.

"It's great, one-stop shopping," said Stormy Friday, owner of an Annapolis consulting company who has been a regular since Satellite opened. She said she parks there about three times a month.

"One of the things that's important for a woman is the [chauffeur service]," Friday added. "It's better than sitting on a bus going back and forth myself, having to load and unload my suitcases myself. This is kind of like coming home and having your family greet you."

Satellite's competitors said the facility's extra services aren't a threat.

"We offer good services, too," said Donna Paige, a Park & Go operation manager. "We help customers with their luggage, and if you've got a flat or can't get your car started, we'll help you."

Operators of other similar service-oriented parking facilities in the country say they've won over many regulars -- especially corporate customers -- with their added incentives.

"There needs to be something there to help the working professionals get their cars fixed," said Tiahna Krabacher, a manager at Fix & Fly near Raleigh-Durham International Airport in eastern North Carolina.

Maximizing time

"People are busier today, and little things like getting an oil change are just not high on their priority list most times, so if you can combine doing two things at one time you're maximizing what little time you have."

When it comes to minor work done to your car, that is. Poncharik said they have no plans to expand their services to offer major car repairs.

"Our aim is not to be your local repair shop," he said.

"The convenience store doesn't replace the grocery store. This is just a place where you can get an oil change without ruining your schedule. If [customers] need a new timing belt, they're going to go to Aamco."

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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