Airport curbside congestion: Why is it happening and how do we make it stop?

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Wilson Rayfield, AIA, LEED AP, executive vice president of aviation at Gresham, Smith and Partners, looks at passenger flow at airports and what can be done to prevent gridlock.

The ticketing lobby used to be a mandatory first stop at an airport for all departing passengers. If you didn’t wait in line at the check-in counter to exchange your ticket for a boarding pass, you didn’t get on a plane. Now I only visit the ticket lobby if I’m checking a bag.

It’s no secret that technology has transformed how people use airport terminals. Today, mobile apps let customers buy tickets, check in, change seat assignments, locate gates, find places to eat and shop, track bags, learn where to claim luggage, arrange ground transportation, and navigate from A to B, all from the convenience of their smartphone. As a result of the streamlined process, the majority of passengers flow directly to the security checkpoint.

As technology makes air travel easier, airports can now serve more passengers within the same terminal space, making overcrowding and congestion on airport roadways and curbsides outside the terminal a serious problem. Previously, an airport terminal that was designed to process one million annual enplaned passengers needed a ticket lobby that could process one million passengers per year. Now, that same ticket lobby can handle four to five million passengers annually, or more.

Outside the terminal, it’s a different story. Highways, airport access roads and curbsides designed for that one million-passenger airport become gridlocked by the increased traffic, which includes – thanks again to technology – people getting dropped off at the terminal by rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft. Cars, taxis, limousines, vans and buses have to dodge each other and passengers to navigate the overcrowded area.

The airport’s front door has become a heavily congested space. Thanks to technology, the passenger bottleneck has moved from the airport’s interior to the exterior. But here’s the good news: there are ways we can alleviate this bottleneck and extend the useful life of an existing terminal.

Expand the curbside

There’s no doubt that the terminal curbside is a key element of the passenger experience – it provides the first and last impressions a passenger has at the airport. As traffic increases, it’s imperative that we find ways to maximize the existing terminal frontage.

A great example of making the most of useable curbside space and using it to enhance the passenger experience is the grand canopy and graphic Welcome Wall, the covered curbside and the parking garage at Gerald R Ford International Airport (GRR) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The glass canopy stretching between the terminal and garage roofs provides a comfortable environment in all weather and seasons, while the Welcome Wall displays scenes of West Michigan to arriving passengers.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) in Florida also maximized its space by adding canopies along the open-air curbside that connects FLL’s four unit terminals. The area previously offered no shelter from Florida’s hot sun and unpredictable weather, which forced passengers and vehicles to crowd around terminal entrances. Pick-ups and drop-offs are now occurring over a larger curbside area, alleviating some of the congestion.

At my home airport, Richmond International Airport (RIC) in Virginia, they took a vertical approach to minimizing congestion outside the main terminal. Two levels of roadways separate arriving passengers from departing passengers, a configuration that simplifies the loading and unloading process.

For airports that don’t have that kind of underutilized curbside, supplemental areas such as cell phone waiting lots and free short-term parking near the terminal are also effective options. The cell phone waiting lot at Tampa International Airport (TPA) even includes restrooms and real-time flight information, and is widely used by airport visitors.

Create multiple front doors

Larger airports often need to go a step further by creating additional landside access points, or front doors, that serve different modes of ground transportation.

One method is the consolidated rental car facility, known as a ConRAC. To get rental cars away from the terminal and improve pedestrian safety, TPA is nearing completion on a ConRAC south of the airport to house all of its rental car functions in one remote location. As a side benefit, the old rental car area can be converted to passenger parking, a key source of airport revenue.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Georgia, USA, went so far as to build an entirely new terminal and parking garage for international passengers. The Maynard H Jackson International Terminal creates a new interstate access point on the opposite side of the airport from the main terminal. The new terminal pulls international passengers from the existing terminal’s roadway system, lessening the cars visiting the domestic departure terminal.

Connect the dots

The introduction of any remote facility creates another issue: how to transport passengers to and from the terminal. Buses frequently fill that role, but they further compound vehicular traffic and curbside congestion.

Airports are solving this with Automated People Movers (APMs), which can keep those passengers off the roadway, place them into the terminal well away from the curbside, and transport them to non-airport facilities. The ATL Skytrain, for example, connects Hartsfield-Jackson’s domestic terminal to the Georgia International Convention Center (GICC) and nearby hotels and restaurant before continuing on to the airport’s ConRAC.

TPA is also looking at taking shuttle busses out of the equation with a new APM network connecting the terminal to both the ConRAC and economy parking garages. The airport’s new ConRAC and APM will eliminate more than 8,500 trips per day along the airport’s main roadway just from shuttling rental vehicles alone.

In the end, though, the only passengers using a terminal curbside should be the ones an airport wants there. Many airports use a combination of wayfinding methods, which can be confusing. An integrated wayfinding system sets passengers up for success, helping them make the right decision at the right time and alleviating additional road congestion.

Technology is changing rapidly, so we can never stop preparing for the future. As landside congestion increases, designers and airports must develop solutions to reduce overcrowding and extend the life of the airport terminal. By looking at how passengers are arriving to the airport, as well as how and where they enter, there are solutions to alleviate the overcrowding.

Wilson Rayfield leads GS&P’s Aviation market and has devoted more than 20 years to designing and managing a multitude of complex, award-winning airport projects. He has served as lead designer for concourse and baggage claim expansions, parking garages, campus-wide improvements, elevated roadways, terminal expansions, and other projects ranging in cost from less than US$1m to more than US$100m.

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