The tough economy has taken its toll on a free parking perk travelers have enjoyed for years at BWI airport.
Thirty minutes of parking, convenient for people who wanted to run in quickly and greet arriving travelers or help someone carry in a suitcase, used to be free in the daily garage at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
But that free parking ended last week as a decline in travel by consumers has left airports such as BWI looking to cut costs or find additional revenue.
BWI is now charging $2 for the first 30 minutes, a change that it expects to bring in $500,000 in annual revenue. The daily maximum of $20 has not changed.
"It's primarily a financial decision," said Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for the airport. "During this economic downturn, BWI has worked to contain costs and raise revenue where possible."
Airports across the country are facing the same predicament as they experience the trickle-down effects of the struggling airline industry. As airlines cut flights, that affects revenue at airports. Airlines pay airports fees based on such things as the number of passengers, weight of planes and how much real estate they take up in an airport. Fewer people traveling also mean fewer people paying for amenities such as parking.
"As airline travel goes, so goes the airport," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. "The fewer flights and the fewer passengers flying means that airports have to find a way to keep the beast fed. There are enormous fixed costs to running an airport."
Harteveldt said it's unusual for an airport the size of BWI to offer free parking close to the terminal and not surprising that it would be one of the first amenities to go in tough times. Dean noted that the airport has a free cell phone parking lot with 50 spaces where drivers can wait if they're picking up someone.
BWI's new fees are comparable to airports in the area. Reagan National Airport charges $2 per half hour for the first two hours. Philadelphia's airport is $3 for the first half hour, while Dulles International Airport charges $4 per hour. These airports also have free cell phone lots.
Dean said the free lot helped with traffic flow during a recent expansion of the airport. Now that construction is completed, the pickup area is easier to navigate and the free parking isn't needed as much, he said.
But some think the pickup area will become only more congested because fewer people will want to park for such a short period if they have to pay a fee. Drivers said the pickup area isn't convenient because you can't wait long because of federal restrictions related to homeland security. Wait more than a few minutes and a police officer will flash his lights or write drivers tickets.
Many people at BWI Monday were surprised by the new fees, which were noted on white pieces of paper taped to the ticket dispenser.
"I don't like it," said Michele Bishop of Glen Burnie as she pulled a suitcase out of her car. "It's going to be a big mess over there," she said pointing to where drivers were dropping off travelers.
"It's a bit of an annoyance," said Christian Clausen, 40, who had just dropped off his wife for a flight. "It caught me by surprise. I was expecting it to be free." Clausen said he might not have parked if he had known he would have to pay.
Wendy Hickman, who lives in Northern Virginia, was dropping off her fiance, an Army reservist who was being deployed to Afghanistan.
"I'd like to go in and see him off without having to pay for it," said Hickman, a student at George Mason University in Virginia.
Airports have been raising parking fees, charging for Internet access and adding more space for kiosk and other retail ventures to help generate more revenue, Harteveldt said. Denver International Airport recently raised some of its parking fees by $1 a day.
BWI has also cut employee travel and slashed $1 million from its advertising budget to reduce operating costs, Dean said. He said there was no shortfall in the budget but that the airport needed to make these changes to keep the budget balanced.
The number of passengers traveling through BWI declined 6.1 percent in May, compared to the same time last year, the latest figures available. Parking revenue is also down, Dean said, although he didn't disclose by how much.
"The airport recognizes the state of the industry and the fact that passenger traffic may not rebound until next year," Dean said.