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Signal strength: Cellphone lots get a makeover

Feb. 8, 2013 - 09:44AM   |  
By HARRIET BASKAS   |   Comments
Cellphone lots offering free, short-term parking near airports -- such as this one at La Crosse Municipal Airport in Wisconsin -- are now available at most large, medium and many small airports. But just 10 years ago, none existed. (La Crosse Municipal Airport)

These days, when you pick up someone from the airport, you’re as likely to wait in your car in the cellphone lot as use the short-term parking. That way your party can call you when he or she has landed and you can make a quick pick-up at the curb.

Cellphone lots offering free, short-term parking near airports are now available at most large, medium and many small airports. But just 10 years ago, none existed. Their presence at airports is the result of two post-9/11 trends: heightened concerns about security outside terminals and the growing number of people using cellphones.

“Security concerns and technology have definitely driven the rise of this airport amenity,” says Debbie McElroy, spokesperson for ACI-NA, the organization that represents most North American airports.

But so has economics. In the past, many airports gave drivers a grace period in the parking garage, anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, to allow them to go into the terminal and meet a passenger. But most of these free parking sessions have been eliminated as airports try to maximize revenue generated from their parking garages. “Airports still want to provide good service to their communities,” says McElroy, “so when they cut free parking they’ll often add a cellphone waiting lot nearby.”

And while many cellphone lots are put on property that an airport wasn’t using for anything else, the lots do have costs. “You have to establish them, maintain them and make sure you have periodic security checks,” McElroy says. “And in some airports, the lots are on land that could otherwise be put to use generating some sort of revenue.”

Still, cellphone lots are now so popular that many airports are expanding them and adding amenities for waiting drivers such as free Wi-Fi, vending machines, restrooms and electronic reader boards displaying up-to-date flight arrival information.

Here’s a sampling of features:

• At Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport in Florida, community outreach coordinator Allan Siegel says the airport offers a flight-status screen as well as emergency services for vehicles.

• Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas offers flight information display monitors, restrooms and regular food truck service offering Mexican food, panini sandwiches, salads, appetizers and drinks.

• Tampa International Airport in Florida has vending machines, restrooms, real-time flight information, free Wi-Fi, and electric vehicle charging stations in its cellphone lot and, before the holidays, it began a 30-day experiment allowing food trucks on site. The experiment has been such a success that the trial period has been extended. The airport posts the food truck schedule on its Facebook page.

“Other airports are watching Tampa to see how successful they are in doing this,” says McElroy, “And I think there’s probably room for other airports to contract with vendors to offer more services and amenities at their cellphone lots as well.”

But what kinds of services and amenities might be added? Tim O’Krongley, assistant aviation director for the San Antonio Airport System, says there’s been some discussion about adding food truck service at San Antonio International Airport. And when Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opens a new, larger permanent cellphone lot next spring, free Wi-Fi and some food options may be added as well.

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Harriet Baskas reports for USA Today.

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