Cell users steer clear of circling

BWI: A free lot gives drivers a place to idle - and to avoid looping construction - as they wait for passengers to call and say they've arrived.

October 09, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Picking up an arriving passenger at Baltimore-Washington International Airport can be an ordeal that involves prolonged circling of a terminal that is seriously disrupted by construction.

Larry Grainger knows how to avoid that.

Instead of driving directly to the terminal to pick up his wife, the Crownsville masonry contractor pulls into a free parking lot set aside for people to wait with their cell phones until their passengers call to say they've arrived.

"It saves all that hassle. She calls when she gets all the luggage out, and we're gone," Grainger said.

BWI's new Arrival Waiting Area, also known as the "cell phone lot," is a recognition of the growing role that wireless technology plays in everyday life. It is also part of the Maryland Aviation Administration's strategy for relieving congestion on the terminal's main road.

Airport officials opened the roughly 50-space lot at Aviation Boulevard and Elm Road in April. Two recent visits indicated that it is catching on slowly, with only a few vehicles using the lot on both occasions. BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said the most cars he's seen there is about 12.

But the motorists who have discovered the lot love the idea.

Christie Barbagello, who was picking up a friend arriving via Amtrak at BWI's train station, used the lot for the first time this week. She hadn't known about it until she saw a sign posted in the terminal.

Barbagello said the free lot worked out well. If it weren't there, she said, she'd have to pay to sit and wait. About 5 p.m. she got a call from her friend, saying he wouldn't be arriving for about 20 minutes. Barbagello planned to pay some bills in the meantime.

Those waiting in the lot found different uses for the time that wasn't spent driving around. Some slept. Some chatted on cell phones. Andrew Odinma Oynemenam of Riverdale read a newspaper. Daniel Grisso got out of his car and smoked a cigarette.

"It gives you a chance to stretch your legs," said Grisso, who had driven from Point of Rocks to pick up a friend. He said he appreciates saving gasoline by not "circling aimlessly."

Oynemenam, a professional driver waiting to pick up a British Airways passenger, said he uses the lot regularly. He prefers it to the parking garage nearest the terminal - where he could park for free for the first hour - because he doesn't have to take a ticket and go in and out of a building. He said that once he receives a call at the lot, he can be at the terminal in three or four minutes.

The rules governing the lot are simple: The driver has to stay with the car and can't wait there for more than an hour.

Technically, Oynemenam was ineligible to use the lot because he was driving a commercial vehicle. Dean said that with the lot well below capacity, the airport may re-examine the policy on commercial users.

Dean said the cell phone lot is not original to BWI. Denver's airport had one before BWI, and Philadelphia is doing something similar, he said.

The opening of the lot comes as the airport is in the throes of a $1.8 billion expansion and renovation that frequently affects traffic at the terminal.

Setting aside a parking lot for cellular customers would have made little sense a decade ago - when there were roughly 16 million U.S. subscribers, and callers used analog mobile phones mostly for static-ridden outgoing calls.

Since then, however, the market has grown to more than 158 million subscribers.

Dean said that even before the lot opened, drivers would park outside the terminal and wait for a cell phone call. But frequently they'd park illegally - and unsafely - along the road leading to the airport.

He said the response to the lot has been positive.

Grainger said he's a fan. "As more people get on to it, I think you'll see a lot more people in here," he said.

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