CA: Memphis airport parking deck is big money-maker

CA: Memphis airport parking deck is big money-maker

After a rocky start four years ago, the $121 million Ground Transportation Center has gone from scapegoat to game-winner.

Airport parking revenue has shot up $5 million, or 45 percent since 2011. The net gain rises to $7 million considering a $2 million-a-year savings from not running exhaust-belching shuttle buses to ferry passengers and employees from distant surface parking lots.

The extra money goes into the terminal operation, helping keep rents competitive for airlines and continue to grow air service, chief executive Scott Brockman said.

The seven-level building was in the wrong place at the wrong time when it opened in the fall of 2012, as far as many airport critics were concerned. Construction began in 2010, a year before Delta Air Lines announced the first major cuts that culminated in loss of the longtime hub and an eventual 75-percent reduction in flights.

But airport officials never doubted it was the right move. Brockman said, “The numbers always said this thing is going to be unbelievably successful financially, there’s no way it can fail. The creative way we funded it, the ability for us to provide a product at a price that was fantastic: $6 a day for covered parking, almost at the front door of the airport.” Debt payments are $288,500 a year for 30 years.

The economy garage is popular among frequent business travelers, particularly single travelers with little luggage, but less so for families who have to schlep baggage to the terminal, said David Williams, co-administrator of a Memphis airport watchdog group on Facebook.

Frequent flier Robert Cockerham said he still laments the obstructed view of the 1963 terminal. He hasn’t parked in the economy garage yet, preferring closer parking in a three-deck garage next to the terminal, but he’s considering it, mainly because of the $6-a-day price tag. The parking project’s success is tied to a growing number of Memphians flying out of the airport, lured by low-cost carriers such as Southwest, Frontier and Allegiant.

Airport officials believe the local traffic number is the most in airport history, but they can’t be sure. Airlines just began reporting real passenger numbers to the airport within the past five years, after relying for years on estimates based on periodic sampling.

More local traffic means more demand for parking. Brockman also said the economy garage’s size and affordability is attracting people who used to be dropped off.

Two major off-airport parking enterprises with a combined 1,770 spaces have closed since 2012, with the airport buying the real estate of one, Park It Here. FastPark is the lone survivor among big operators.

The airport has rolled out user-friendly features as part of its MEMPark program, including credit-card access, improved wireless Internet service and piped-in Memphis music. It has not gone forward with a valet parking program because officials haven’t found enough demand to do it at a reasonable price, Brockman said.

Coming soon is a new rewards program, MEMPerks, which will start with a parking feature: buy 10 days of parking, get 1 day free.

As air service grows and the parking lot wins converts, a day of reckoning is coming that would have been inconceivable four years ago, Artz said.

Airport officials say their next move probably involves expanding parking by reconfiguring the 2,500-space, three-level lot between the economy deck and the terminal, currently dedicated to higher-priced long- and short-term parking.
It won’t be any time soon. In terms of airport capital needs, it’s queued up behind a concourse modernization program scheduled for completion in 2021, Brockman said.

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