Autonomous vehicles will eventually make the existing business model of airport parking garages obsolete, something that any taxpayer disinclined toward $100 million annual budget shortfalls should care a great deal about.
Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have already put a dent in this critically important source of non-aviation revenue, with many airports reporting soaring passenger numbers and yet flat or declining parking income. This will only get worse when autonomous vehicles eliminate any remaining inclinations to park. But without parking revenue, airports could become a drain on public coffers. And the challenges autonomous vehicles pose to airports isn’t limited to just parking; air traffic itself will also likely be impacted when travelers on short-haul overland routes opt to skip air travel’s pat-downs and gate mobs for the freedom and convenience of a robot-driven car, trading speed for a truly point-to-point experience.
Given this existential threat, it’s tempting for airport operators to re-imagine parking garages as all sorts of things, from concert halls and shopping malls to condominiums, marijuana farms, and more. However, there’s a major wrinkle to such ideas: autonomous vehicles won’t show up all at once in some sort of dramatic Day One moment. They’ll arrive gradually, eating away at revenues year-over-year, but imprisoning airport operators with a conundrum: how can you provide some parking if you’ve re-purposed all of your parking? So, any solution will need to be scalable over time.
Instead of autonomous vehicles putting airport parking garages out of business, airport parking garages need to get into the business of autonomous vehicles.
But this scaled transition problem is actually good news because it points us back toward the solution staring us in the face. First, let’s remember that these structures are made for vehicles. More specifically, they are made for dynamically storing and moving vehicles every hour and day of the year. So, here it is: instead of autonomous vehicles putting airport parking garages out of business, airport parking garages need to get into the business of autonomous vehicles.
Imagine this future for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the 9th busiest airport in the United States: by 2030, the airport’s 13,000-car parking garage is home base for the airport’s fleet of all-electric autonomous vehicles. The vast majority of both enplaned and deplaned passengers—all 60+ million of them—are transported to- and from the airport by these fleet vehicles, providing extraordinary value to passengers, airlines, the airport, and the city itself. Here’s how:
Inexpensive transfers that eliminate TSA lines.
For passengers, the benefit is inexpensive (projected to be a highly affordable $0.35 per mile), hassle-free, point-to-point ground transfers. For disembarking passengers, the autonomous airport vehicle even serves as a secure, mobile TSA station, checking documents and screening passengers on the way to the airport—eliminating the time spent parking and in TSA lines. (This will also liberate valuable real estate inside the terminal currently occupied by screening areas.) For arriving passengers, their checked luggage will be loaded onboard while they make their way from the aircraft through the terminal; this will be possible because the autonomous airport vehicle will be a node on the network, and knowing which passengers will be using the vehicle means luggage can be connected with that vehicle directly rather than having the passenger idle at an archaic, space-hogging baggage carousel.
A share of transportation beyond aircraft.
For airlines, the autonomous airport vehicle will provide a new source of revenue; even just getting $0.02 of that $0.35 per mile as the lead generator will add up to a nice new business for airlines. Also, as part of this arrangement, the airport could operate vehicles that are branded with the airline’s livery, creating a door-to-door travel experience for passengers. Also, by tapping into the airport autonomous vehicle as a node on the network, airlines will have total visibility into where passengers are beyond just the gate, which could even allow them to experiment with different ways of boarding, which is a totally broken process at the moment, and ripe for new thinking.