When searching for a competitive edge, many airports automatically focus on developing new air service. Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is also developing its parking shuttle service.
Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer Paul Wiedefeld and other airport officials realized that with more than 25% of their passengers riding buses to and from airport parking lots, the shuttle system could make or break BWI's reputation as an "easy come, easy go" airport. Recent changes to operational practices are already showing measurable improvements, and investments in new technology to enhance customer service are also under way.
One of the airport's first moves was hiring transit specialist Ralign T. Wells in July 2013. Previously, Wells oversaw bus, light rail and subway operations for the entire state as the chief executive officer of the Maryland Transit Administration. As director of Parking and Transportation at BWI, he manages all of the airport's ground transportation and parking operations.
Project: Parking Shuttle Improvements
Location: Baltimore/Washington Int'l Thurgood Marshall Airport
Shuttle Fleet: 49 buses
Private Shuttle Operator: First Transit
Contract Duration: 3 yrs (expires in 2016)
Shuttle Frequency: Every 5 min.
Service Offered: 24 hrs/day; 7 days/week
Parking Facilities Served: 5
Total Parking Capacity: 24,700 spaces
Avg. Parking Occupancy: 50% - 60%
Private Parking Operator: SP Plus
Contract Duration: 5 yrs (expires in 2020)
Annual Parking Revenue: $60 million
Future Enhancements: $8 million Automated Parking Control System from Hub Parking; $500,000 Next Vehicle Arrival System from Clever Devices
Expected Deployment: Fall 2015
Before Wells arrived at BWI, the buses that served the airport's five parking facilities kept inconsistent schedules. Sometimes, shuttles showed up every 10 minutes; other times, waits were twice as long. The unpredictable nature of the service was frustrating for passengers trying to catch flights or return home.
After taking a hard look at the way the shuttle system was operating, Wells began implementing changes to make it work better. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the system was key to recouping market share in the airport's battle with off-site parking operators, he explains. It was also important to help BWI maintain market dominance in the three-way race to be the busiest airport in the Washington, D.C. area, he adds.
In the Trenches
With customer surveys indicating that price and shuttle frequency are the top two respective factors for passengers choosing where to park, Wells introduced a new schedule in May 2014. Now, BWI's buses are scheduled to stop every five minutes; and the airport has averaged 92% on-time performance since the changes were instituted, Wells reports.
With a bus showing up every five minutes on each route, BWI now matches the level of service offered by off-airport parking competitors. The frequency is also twice as fast as other airport shuttles in the area, adds Wells.
In the year since the new schedule has been in place, the airport's market share increased to 77% - up from 74%. Although results are trending up, Wells is intent on capturing even more business. BWI once had more than 90% market share, he notes.
With 24,700 total parking spaces and an average occupancy rate of 50% to 60%, parking generates about $60 million of non-aeronautical revenue per year for BWI. According to Wells, it's too early to determine how much parking lot revenue has grown with the improved market share.
BWI outsources its parking and shuttle operations to private vendors. The airport owns the assets - 49 shuttle buses and five parking facilities; its contractors provide staff and manage daily service.
First Transit operates BWI's shuttle buses and is currently in the midst of a three-year contract that expires in 2016. SP Plus has been operating the airport's parking facilities since January, under a five-year contract. First Transit held the prior shuttle contract with BWI, but this is the first contract with the airport for SP Plus.
After analyzing previous bus operations, Wells found a way to increase shuttle frequency without increasing BWI's contract costs. He observed that drivers often rested for up to 25 minutes after each loop. "The 25 minutes was dead time, and we were not getting any value out of it," he explains. "We gave them a recovery of five minutes, which was much more reasonable."
Wells acknowledges that BWI received pushback from First Transit after the schedule change, and some of the company's 135 drivers quit. But the airport stuck to its plan to improve shuttle service while holding costs steady. BWI's contract with First Transit did not include mandatory "recovery" periods; and First Transit's contract with its drivers did not specify a schedule or duration for breaks between runs, notes Wells. "At the end of the day, we were not getting all that we were paying for," he remarks.
First Transit's contract requires it to provide 805 hours of bus service each day. BWI preferred to leverage its fleet of equipment and provide passengers with around-the-clock service by increasing the frequency of shuttle stops. Part of the rationale for longer breaks was to increase the likelihood of maintaining on-time route schedules even if problems arose, explains Wells. Per the terms of its contract, First Transit is penalized if a route is not on time. Previously, the company ran on time nearly 100% of the time; now its on-time rate averages 92%, Wells reports.
The late penalties BWI collects help offset the higher fuel bills it is incurring since the switch to more frequent routes, he adds. While airport officials projected a 20% jump in fuel costs, the actual increase was lower than expected.
Even with increased frequency, the buses have high ridership levels in both directions. "At peak times, we do have full buses," Wells comments.
Currently, the largest buses in BWI's fleet measure 40 feet long, seat 29 passengers each and serve the long-term lots, daily garage and Amtrak station. However, officials are assessing the feasibility of purchasing articulated buses when the next fleet contract is bid in 2017 or 2018. Articulated buses, which bend in the middle, can carry 50% more passengers, explains Wells. Since the typical lifespan of an airport bus is 12 to 15 years, BWI will base its equipment decisions on expected capacity through 2030.
Any buses that join BWI's fleet will sport its new "official" colors and graphics. Previously, up to three different branding schemes were in use at the same time, which lead to confusion. "Most people prefer to use an authentic BWI [bus]," says Wells. "Sometimes they did not even know which one was ours."
Now, all airport parking shuttles feature a uniform look for easy identification by passengers.
Investing in Technology
BWI is in the process of implementing two technology upgrades to improve service for passengers parking at the airport. Both are expected to be ready by fall.
The airport is currently testing a system that tracks and communicates the anticipated arrival time of parking shuttles. "This will take the guesswork out of when the next bus will arrive," explains Wells. BWI's off-site parking competitors do not offer riders such information, he adds.
Major transit systems have launched similar systems in recent years, but BWI wants to make sure all the bugs are worked out before introducing the technology to airport customers. "We have done some tests with less-than-perfect results," Wells reports. "We will not turn it on until it is perfect."
Because the network is hardwired, the "next bus system" will not support a smartphone app. However, bus arrival information will be fed to the airport's revamped website, and that information should be available on its mobile website.
A new parking and revenue control system by Hub Parking - an $8 million investment - is the other technology enhancement currently in the works. The system is designed to eliminate the need for customers to take and redeem tickets for parking and will allow them to pay directly with credit cards and E-Z Pass transponders.
Other system options allow the airport to implement flexible pricing and offer passengers the opportunity to reserve parking spots in advance.