Car-rental road gets more congested

Vehicles: Busy airports are moving rental counters farther away or completely off the property.


August 22, 1999|By Betsy Wade | By Betsy Wade,New York times news service

With so many airports undergoing major renovation these days, getting in and out of them in a rental car can be almost as annoying as a wait for landing permission on a packed plane. Many major airports, like Kennedy International in New York, were long overdue for modernization or expansion. Others, like Minneapolis-St. Paul, renovated once and now must do it again because of a swell in the number of passengers.

The Air Transport Association estimates the 1998 passenger total on United States scheduled airlines at 614 million; the figure in 1988 was 453.7 million. The end is nowhere near: The Federal Aviation Administration recently forecast that the number would reach nearly a billion by 2010. A result, one expert says, is "stressed out" airports.

Construction means that passengers find themselves shunted around concrete Jersey barriers, sitting in temporary waiting rooms or claiming luggage amid walls of flapping plastic. And when the wraps finally come off, passengers almost inevitably must go farther than before to pick up rental cars, as rental operations are displaced to make more room for airline counters, planes and passengers. "It's the wave of the future," said David Gotschall of the San Jose, Calif., airport.

What it all means is that even in a rebuilt airport, it takes passengers longer to get to a consolidated garage to pick up their car and longer to shed the car on the return trip. In the new designs for airports in areas where real estate is expensive, counters, garages, cars, car washes and offices for the big-name car rental companies are moved to the edge of the airport property or away from the grounds entirely. Then, to eliminate the dozens of company vans that go around and around the curbs like a child's toy, the airport provides consolidated buses for all car-rental customers, since they are all going to the same remote area. "In a perfect world, the rental car would be standing outside the air terminal with the key in it," said Simon H. Ellis, Hertz's vice president for properties and concessions. "But this is not possible everywhere, so we have to work on other options."

One result, according to Jon LeSage of Abrams Travel Data Services in Long Beach, Calif., an airport planning consultant, is that in the next 10 years most of the top 100 airports in the country will be changing the way they handle car-rental services. Nearly a dozen already have.

Rental companies go along

Once when I used the phrase "pushed out" to describe what seemed to be happening to the rental companies at the hands of airport management, a rental-car official said that was not really right: rental companies participate in the airport-redesign process because they have a major role. Ellis said that typically 20 to 30 percent of all arriving passengers rent a car; in Denver the figure is 50 percent, which is extremely high since a good portion of arriving passengers at any airport are coming home. Within these margins, there are wide variations, of course: almost all business travelers rent cars, but five passengers in one family will take only one car. But it remains true that a major exit for airport users is through a car-rental office.

The rental companies are also big revenue sources for airports: they pay 8 to 10 percent of their gross revenues to the airport, in addition to rent. Even companies that operate off airports, said Ray A. Mundy, director of the Airport Ground Transportation Association in Knoxville, Tenn., pay an average of 8 percent of their gross.

Ellis of Hertz said that his company pays San Francisco Airport $10 million a year. Car-rental companies rank second or third among airport revenue sources. Airline fees come first and parking revenue vies with car-rental revenue for second and third places.

Vase spaces

The numbers involved -- acres, cars, parking spaces -- are amazing, and certainly make clear why all the rental companies cannot crowd into even a vast terminal. San Francisco has just moved all its rental-car services to a garage with five stories of seven acres each. David Albersman of A.G.A. Consulting in Bloomington, Minn., said that the Minneapolis airport was using an interim rental-car facility again, but the new one, moved two miles from the airport to create parking space, will use a multilevel 60-acre site to hold 18,000 rental cars. "The real challenge is how do you tell someone how to get where they want to go," Albersman said. "What signs, what sounds, what colors do you use to say how to get there?"

This is what is driving travelers bananas when they get their bags and look at the wall where the rental counters used to be. A longish van ride is ahead even before the contract can be signed. And if the rental-car company the travelers use is not in the consolidated area, but is an "off airport" company, there will be a second ride.

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