A new $46 million rental car facility at El Paso International Airport (ELP) reflects a simple but sometimes-overlooked truth: Airports and rental car agencies both benefit when travelers can rent cars quickly and efficiently in comfortable, carefully conceived structures.
The new three-story facility at ELP is located just steps away from the main terminal, with space for 764 vehicles. The convenient location and greatly increased capacity provides customers a much-improved experience compared to the old facility-a surface parking lot with just 246 parking stalls, explains Sam Rodriguez, ELP's assistant director of aviation.
Making the rental process more appealing for travelers benefits the 10 on-airport agencies, which face increasing competition from off-airport competitors and alternative forms of transportation such as app-driven ridesharing services. But it's also a boon to ELP, which receives either 10% of the agencies' yearly rental revenues or a minimum annual guaranteed amount, whichever is greater.
Project: Consolidated Car Rental Facility
Location: El Paso (TX) Int'l Airport
Annual Passenger Traffic: 2.6 million
Facility Size: Nearly 445,000 sq. ft.; 3 stories
Approx. Cost: $46 million
Funding: Customer facility charge (CFC) of $3.50 per car rental per day
Facility Location: 18 acres of land adjacent to main terminal
Projected Customer Facility Charge Revenue: About $3.3 million/yr
Facility Features: 764 parking stalls; 14,000-sq.-ft. office building for 10 car-rental agencies; quick-turnaround area with 10 car-wash bays & 24 fueling/vacuuming stations; additional car-storage area; 12 maintenance bays; 9,000-sq.-ft. atrium lobby with hanging sculpture
Architect: Demattei Wong Architecture
Construction Contractor: Arrow Building Corp.
Approx. 2016 Car Rental Revenue: $42 million
Approx. 2016 Concessionaire Fees: $4.4 million
Concessionaire Fee Structure: 10% of car-rental revenues or minimum annual guaranteed amount, whichever is greater
Approx. Rental Agency Ground Rental Fees: $440,000/yr.
Key Benefits: Ease & convenience for travelers; faster rental car turnaround times; enhanced revenue generation
Last fiscal year, rental car revenue totaled $42.45 million. Of that, the airport received $4.4 million in concessionaire fees. In addition, rental agencies pay slightly more than $440,000 a year in ground rental fees
"It's definitely a symbiotic relationship, especially in El Paso, because they view the relationship that way," notes Scott Goldstein, director of planning and programming for Enterprise Holdings, the rental car conglomerate that includes Enterprise, Alamo and National. Part of Goldstein's job is representing the interests of all participating agencies when an airport builds a new consolidated rental car facility (CONRAC), as was the case at ELP.
"If airports don't get planes to land, we don't have customers," he points out. "Most airports understand that we need each other-that we're servicing the same customers. If you run an airport and don't have a nice rental car facility, you might encourage other forms of transportation for customers [such as Uber and Lyft]."
Moreover, travelers in cities such as Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco can choose among multiple airports. "If I have an awful rental car experience every time I go to an airport, I might opt to use another airport," Goldstein says.
In the bigger picture, the new facility at ELP strengthens the airport's impact as an economic development engine for El Paso and the surrounding region. "It illustrates our commitment to support travel, tourism and economic development in an increasingly competitive airport industry," Rodriguez explains. "It's another piece of the puzzle from an economic development standpoint for the city as a whole, because it's important that business travelers can easily, quickly and efficiently rent a car and do business more efficiently in the city."
The facility, which opened in July, has been on ELP's master-plan wish list since 2005. Planning began with a feasibility study in 2011 that determined the building could be paid for with a customer facility charge of $3.50 per day for every car rented at the airport. The airport, which handles about 2.6 million passengers annually, began levying the fee in February 2012. Overall, the customer facility charge is projected to generate $3.3 million per year-money that will pay off 25-year municipal bonds issued by the city of El Paso, notes Rodriguez.
Expediting traffic flow into and out of the facility was a main consideration.
The nearly 445,000-square-foot primary structure and ancillary buildings were built on 18 acres of land just west of the terminal. The site previously served as the return lot for rental car agencies at the airport. The land also included an old cargo building that was demolished to make room for the new facility.
El Paso-based Arrow Building Corp. built the structure in just less than two years. Construction was a challenge due to the tightly constrained location, right next to the terminal. During construction, the airport temporarily dedicated about 325 spaces in a short-term parking lot in front of the terminal to rental car operations. "That way consumers could walk out the terminal right to their rental cars," Rodriguez says. "There weren't any big hiccups there."
Demattei Wong Architecture designed the CONRAC to match ELP's terminal. But to Goldstein, the facility's true beauty is how it eases the pickup and return processes. "We want customers to really enjoy the experience when they rent a car," he explains. "They want car rentals to be as quick and easy as possible. El Paso is a perfect example of that-the facility is 15 steps away from the terminal. Customers get off of their planes, walk right by the baggage claim area and in 15 steps, they're in the car rental facility. People don't want to get on a bus or a train or have to wait to get to that next place."
Designed for Efficiency
The facility also enables agencies to clean, refuel and return cars to service faster. "Before, with just 246 return parking spots, the surface lot was very constrained from an operational perspective," Rodriguez recalls. "As cars got rented out, each agency had to bring more cars over from their own little lots located across the street from the airport. During peak business hours, they could not keep up with demand."
With each agency maintaining its own administration offices, car storage areas, fueling stations, cleaning bays, etc., there were a lot of duplicated facilities-and associated vehicles shuffling between them and the terminal. "The agencies were constantly driving cars back and forth to get them cleaned and back to the parking lot, creating traffic problems," explains Rodriguez. "Plus, the open surface lot exposed customers to weather conditions that get pretty extreme around in the winter and summer."
To improve operational efficiency and customer comfort, the facility's first two floors are devoted to parking spaces for rental cars. Staging areas are located on the third floor. To the west of the structure stands a 14,000-square-foot administration building that houses the 10 agencies. Beyond that is a quick-turnaround area with 10 car wash bays and 24 fueling/vacuuming stations. The complex also provides additional space for car storage and a 12-bay maintenance facility.
On balance, there are many factors to consider in creating a well-functioning CONRAC. First on Goldstein's list is flexibility. The design must be able to accommodate the ebbs and flows of growth and attrition that agencies experience over the years.
In addition, he says that it's critical for the quick-turnaround area-the space devoted to washing cars, vacuuming, refueling, etc.-to be close enough so cars can return to the "ready line" quickly, but not so close that they're visible to customers. Ultimately, shorter turnaround times mean the agencies need fewer cars in reserve. Conversely, longer turn times lead to larger and costlier inventories.
The facility also must provide the best possible in-and-out traffic flow, which he says is typically achieved with helix (spiral) or speed ramps. If the design doesn't emphasize efficient egress and access, it negatively affects the customers' experience. "We don't want customers playing a game of Frogger with pedestrians, so we try to avoid cross-traffic with pedestrians and cars," Goldstein says. "You should have one direction of flow in and another one out, so there's no cross traffic."
He also emphasizes that rental car facilities should be more than just parking garages; they should be viewed as retail spaces where agencies can maximize efficiency and make things easy for customers. Sometimes, this is achieved with larger grid patterns. By spacing the structure's support columns 60 feet apart instead of 36 to 50 feet apart, as in standard parking garages, engineers create space for amenities such as more spacious car return lanes and 90-degree parking stalls, explains Goldstein.
"Larger grid patterns allows each car rental company to make the best use of available space," he elaborates. "On top of that, we also want the clearance height of the ceiling to be a little higher than a standard parking garage. After all, it's our retail space, and those few extra feet in height allow us to display our brands-hang signage that enables customers to find their agency or their specific car class or program more easily."
Goldstein also advocates specifying white ceilings equipped with LED lights to save energy and create bright environments where customers feel safe.
Aesthetics Count, Too
When it comes to consolidated rental car centers, efficiency is king. But at El Paso International Airport (ELP), efficiency shares a throne with aesthetics.
To be sure, ELP's new three-story facility was designed to get customers in and out quickly and expedite the turnaround process for rental agencies. However, it was also designed with a host of finishing touches aimed purely at visual appeal.
The 9,000-square-foot atrium lobby features an eye-catching sculpture called Radiance hanging from the ceiling. Artists Norman Lee and Shane Allbritton created the artwork using hundreds of acrylic shapes based on traditional patterns of ethnic groups that have contributed to the city's diverse cultural heritage. "Depending on the time of day, light throws different colors into different places-it looks gorgeous," says Scott Goldstein, director of planning and programming for Enterprise Holdings, the rental car conglomerate that includes Enterprise, Alamo and National.
A terrazzo floor design created by Mitsumasa Overstreet helps guide customers into the CONRAC from the airport. The design, titled The River/El Rio, flows from the terminal through a covered walkway and into the new facility.
Designers from Demattei Wong Architecture even added special visual touches in the structure's elevator. Light boxes on three of the walls display brilliant photographs of the local scenic vistas passengers would actually see if the new structure weren't there.
At ELP, the airport and rental agencies teamed up to develop a facility that would efficiently serve customers and the agencies. "By having a seat at the table, we can make sure the program works for everyone," Goldstein observes. "We all wanted a facility that everyone is proud of...that the airport is proud to have at its front door, that all our employees are proud to work in, and that, most importantly, creates a great customer experience. When customers fly into El Paso and rent a vehicle, they do so in a very convenient, well-lit facility-a place in which they feel comfortable renting a car."
Allowing rental car agencies to provide input regarding the building's design was critical to the project's success, says Goldstein. "In markets where airports don't see the value of rental car agency input during design, it's a real challenge for us," he reflects. "We don't want them to build something that doesn't work well for our customers."
That wasn't the case at ELP, he emphasizes. Airport officials were always gracious and welcoming, and the rental car agencies were involved from the beginning, reports Goldstein. The team met on a monthly basis to talk about major milestones achieved or decisions that had to be made regarding issues such as traffic flow and security.
"The collaboration we received from them [the rental car agencies] was outstanding," Rodriguez relates. "Ultimately, they're the industry experts, so they drove a lot of the 'back-of-house' design."
It would have been unwise to not ask for their input, he adds. ELP wants and expects rental car agencies to have clean, well-maintained cars readily available for customers, because that experience affects travelers' overall impression of the airport and the city. His bottom line: What's good for the airport is also good for the rental car agencies-and vice versa.