Houston Airport System Tackles Parking Problems

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

Parking is a perplexing challenge for many airports. Harried travelers running late get irritated driving up and down rows looking for available spaces. Exhausted travelers who can't remember where they parked wander lots looking for their vehicles.

Special emphasis has been made at two Houston airports - William P. Hobby (HOU) and George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) - to remedy such problems and improve the overall parking experience for customers. Combined, the two locations have 24,000 parking spaces, including 17,000 in covered garages.

When Mario Diaz was appointed director of the Houston Airport System in 2010, he made improving parking one of his top priorities.

"He is very keen on customer service and wants it to be one of our top priorities," says Liliana Rambo, director of Parking Services for the system. "We want to be on the cutting edge of customer service, so we monitor what other airports are doing already, and look for ways to provide even better service."

The airport conducted passenger focus groups a few years ago to gather ideas about how to improve customer service and overall satisfaction with parking. Some of the suggestions have already been implemented, while others are still being researched, notes Rambo.


Project: Parking Programs

Location: William P. Hobby Airport & George Bush Intercontinental Airport

Total Parking Capacity: 24,000 spaces

Parking Manager: New South Parking, a division of Central Parking

Valet Operator: USA Parking, a subsidiary of Central Parking

Revenue Control Equipment: Amano McGann

Cell Phone Payment Technology: Parkmobile

Features: Free shuttle service between parking facilities & terminal; online reservation system; downloadable coupons; customer reward program; valet service; portable car wash service

Later This Year: Smartphone payment collection

Benefits: Reduced exit processing time; more customer conveniences; 63% increase in parking revenue

Many of the latest additions, including a new online reservation system and downloadable coupons, leverage technology to improve service and efficiency. Soon, IAH customers will be able to use smartphones to pay their parking fees.

"We try to use technology to the best we can," says Rambo. "We have found there is often an application already developed that we can deploy at our airport. But, if an application doesn't exist, we will work to develop one ourselves."

New South Parking, the division of Central Parking that oversees the garages, surface lots and courtesy shuttle service at IAH and HOU, considers the Houston Airport System a leader in parking automation. It has been at the forefront of the movement since 2001, when it first installed equipment to accept credit card payments, says Walt Gray, general manager for central U.S. airports at New South Parking.

"We manage 22 parking programs around the country, and I'm very appreciative that the Houston airport allows us to offer many of the services we've recommended to them," says Gray.

Need a Lift?

Parking ambassadors cruise the garage at IAH and two lots at HOU in 11-passenger electric golf carts, picking up travelers and driving them to the elevators.

"When it is hot outside or when the weather is bad, passengers greatly appreciate a ride to the terminals," notes Rambo.

The ambassadors even help load and unload passengers' luggage - an extra service single parents and senior citizens rave about. They also help airport visitors search for lost vehicles and jumpstart dead batteries.

"We are moving thousands of customers every week, and the courtesy shuttle has been well received by the traveling public," reports Gray.

A few years ago, New South Parking acquired 30 buses that operate on compressed natural gas to move passengers between IAH's remote lot and its terminal.

Valet Cachet

In late June, IAH introduced valet service for $25 per day, which includes the regular parking rate of $17 per day. HOU plans to add the service this fall. USA Parking, a subsidiary of Central Parking, will manage operations at both locations.

"Even if passengers leave out of Terminal A and return to Terminal C, they simply go to the central valet reception area and hop in their car," notes Rambo. "It's a real timesaver that is growing in popularity."

According to Gray, the service is tremendously popular with customers in a hurry to catch flights. "When parking facilities are at peak occupancy, it might take some time before customers can find an open parking space," he explains. "Using the valet service is much less stressful, and customers appreciate the convenience."

IAH uses Automated Valet from AVPM, which integrates into the airport's flight database, to ensure that cars are ready when customers expect them - even if flights are early or delayed.

We Do Windows

Car wash options are specifically tailored for customers using IAH's outdoor surface lot. Crews from the SUDS service use a portable system to hand-wash vehicles just a few hours before passengers return home. Travelers schedule the service with the parking lot operator; prices range from $14.95 for a car wash to $29.95 for a truck wash and wax. Because crews don't clean vehicle interiors, passengers don't need to leave their keys.

"It is an environmentally safe system that uses a high-pressure nozzle to turn water into a near vapor to clean the vehicle," explains Rambo. "Nobody likes to wait at a car wash for 30 minutes to two hours just to get a car cleaned; so we do it when they are on their return flight. If the car gets dirty during their trip, it is nice and clean by the time they return."

Online Dibs

In fall, visitors will be able to reserve parking spaces online for IAH's ecopark facility at no extra charge. By prepaying for parking, Rambo explains, passengers can ensure access to facilities that tend to fill up quickly. Customers will also be able to download coupons, a feature often used by off-airport parking competitors.

When customers make an online reservation, they will print off parking passes similar to an airline boarding pass. Each pass contains a bar code that, when scanned at the lot entrance, recognizes the prepayment and opens the gate - even if signs indicate the lot is full.

"We must have good inventory management in order to know how many units are in the garage at any time," notes Rambo. "When someone places a parking order, the system takes one space away from the available count for that specific day."

Adding an online reservation system required new gate technology to read the bar codes printed on passengers' parking passes. In the past, equipment has only been able to read magnetic stripes on cards dispensed from on-site machines. The ability to read bar codes and quick response codes, provided by revenue control equipment supplier Amano McGann, creates different payment options for the airport and its customers. It also greatly improves parking efficiency, explains Scott Hill, Amano McGann's vice president of airports.

While a typical cash transaction takes 35 to 45 seconds to complete, the automated prepaid system can reduce transaction time to two to four seconds, reports Hill.

"The technology takes cash handling out of the lanes and improves throughput on ingress and egress to the parking lots," he explains. "The automated lanes can process considerably more transactions per hour, per lane, and it results in less cash to count and faster reconciliation at the bank."

Collected cash must be counted and verified by employees, then deposited the next day. Payments made by credit card are available immediately, contrasts Hill, which ensures better accountability. Because fewer people are involved in credit card processing, the technology allows airports to reduce staffing and become more efficient in back office handling, he adds.

Hill also envisions the system facilitating new business and helping airports compete against off-airport parking operators. "If people coming to the airport can use an online reservation system and pay for parking in advance, they may find it more convenient to use on-airport parking," he explains. "That not only increases income, it creates the potential to add new customers."

Pay by Cell

Later this year, IAH plans to implement a new payment system that allows customers to use cell phones to pay for parking. Parkmobile signed a two-year agreement to build an interface and install equipment that allows airport visitors to access a bar code on their smart phones that can be read by gate control devices to open and close the gates and process payment to passengers' credit cards.

"The city of Houston already uses Parkmobile to allow people to pay for parking downtown, so it just made sense for us to make the technology available for people to use at the airports," says Rambo.

More than 20,000 Houston residents are already registered in the Parkmobile database, adds Brent Paxton, the company's executive vice president of sales. To utilize the service, customers create a Parkmobile account with a downloadable Apple or Android app. Account data such as names, addresses, auto license numbers and credit card information is encrypted and stored in a secured environment, ensures Paxton. Customers' cell phone numbers become their Parkmobile account numbers.

"The cell phone becomes a virtual point of sale terminal," he explains.

For gated lots at IAH and other facilities in the company's system, customers create a quick response code via their Parkmobile smartphone app when entering the facility. When exiting the garage, they reopen the app and tap the "Leave" button, which calculates the amount due plus a 35- to 50-cent convenience fee. The app then charges the credit card and generates another quick response code to open the gate - all within seconds, relates Paxton.

The Parkmobile system also offers a "find my car" feature. If passengers bookmark where they park, they can simply tap a button to pull up its location using GPS.

Soon, smartphone technology will be able to direct customers to available spaces within crowded parking garages, predicts Paxton.

According to him, many off-airport parking operators are moving toward Parkmobile technology, including those in Atlanta; Orange County; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. By employing the same technology, he reasons, airports will be in a good position to entice customers back to on-site facilities.

The same technology could also be used for concessions purchases and other travel fees, like taxi fares, he adds. "Mobile payments are here to stay," Paxton emphasizes. "This technology is much, much broader than simply paying for parking. There are so many micropayment opportunities out there, including the ability to pay for vending machines with a smartphone; that innovation and technology will expand the system exponentially within a few years."

Loyalty Pays

As the Houston Airport System added new parking features, it also implemented a loyalty program to thank travelers for choosing its facilities over off-airport competitors. Parking Plus members choose between free parking or airline miles for their rewards. Typically, members receive one free day at an airport facility for every five paid days; or 50 airline points per each paid day of parking.

By July, more than 6,000 people had signed up for the loyalty program, Gray reports. "Competition is a mainstay of the parking business, and even though Houston operates a public airport, we need to make sure they can compete with private parking facilities," he notes.

Return on Investment

With New South Parking in the driver's seat at IAH and HOU, parking revenues have increased 63%, reports Gray. And despite plenty of off-site competitors, HOU plans to open a new parking garage in 2015 to accommodate an expected increase in Southwest Airlines passengers. It also plans to add more than 1,000 covered parking spaces.

In addition to its primary parking management services, New South also provides marketing support to the Houston Airport System. Branding for its ecopark facilities extends from the shuttle buses to the parking structures to its marketing materials via consistent graphics and color schemes.

"We significantly increased ecopark market share by implementing multimedia advertising and Google Analytics for online marketing," notes Gray.

New Regs

Right now, the biggest impediment to improving parking lies in new federal regulations scheduled to take effect in August, says Rambo. The regulations will change the way people can pay for items with credit cards, she explains.

"We have been working to ensure we comply with new payment card industry data standards for processing credit transactions," she reports. "They are really complex and difficult to understand, and the Durbin Amendment is really impacting the parking industry."

The Durbin Amendment was a provision in the Consumer Protection Act of 2010 that forced banks to lower swipe fees on credit cards, and allowed merchants to impose minimum purchase amounts for credit card transactions.

As a result, the airport has had to invest in new software and equipment to ensure compliance with the new regulations.


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