(Here’s my June “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY)
Want a free ride to town from the airport? In Boston this summer, you’ll get your wish.
In what is apparently a first for a North American airport, Boston Logan International is waiving the $2 fare for all passengers who ride the inbound Silver Line bus from the airport to South Station in downtown Boston. From there, the transfer to the subway – known as the “T” – is free.
The clean-fuel Silver Line buses have been in operation since 2005, have room for luggage and make the trip in from the airport in 20-40 minutes (depending on which terminal you board at), a bit longer than it takes to drive.
The 90-day, free-ride pilot program, called “On Us,” should be a hit with many of the city’s summer visitors, who might otherwise pay $25 or more for a cab ride into the city. But a major goal of the program is to convince locals to switch to the bus and stop paying to park their cars in the airport’s central garage.
At first glance, that part of the program seems a bit counter-intuitive. “Parking is a critical revenue source for North American airports,” said Debby McElroy of Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), an airport trade group. In fact, according to the organization’s 2011 Airport Concessions Benchmarking Survey, parking accounts for 42% of non-aeronautical revenue at airports. “These funds allow airports to modernize facilities, which ultimately benefits travelers,” said McElroy.
So why would Logan Airport decide to spend close to $300,000 to subsidize free bus rides for three months and encourage customers to leave their cars – and their cash – at home?
The answer is space, and not enough of it.
Sprawling airports in Denver and Dallas/Fort Worth sit on vast tracts of land beyond or between urban centers, but Logan has a very small footprint – just 1,700 acres – and is only three miles from downtown Boston. And while the airport’s passenger numbers keep growing (BOS expects to serve close to 30 million passengers this year), due to a regulatory cap limiting commercial parking, space at the airport’s central garages cannot.
The bottom line, is that “Logan cannot build new garages to meet demand,” David S. Mackey, Massport’s Interim CEO & Executive Director said in a statement. (Massport, the Massachusetts Port Authority, owns and operates Boston Logan Airport).
Instead, Logan has been trying to wean passengers from driving to the airport. In March, the daily parking rate in the central garage was raised $3, to $27. At the same time, the daily parking rate at Massport’s suburban lots was lowered to $7, down $4.
The Silver Line “On Us,” pilot program is the next step in that weaning. As part of the effort to reduce curb congestion and bulk up high occupancy vehicle (HOV) usage, the airport has hired and placed extra staff outside the terminals to explain the program to passengers. “We’re collecting information and counting the boardings and the loads at the bus stops at each terminal,” said Carl Leiner, Massport’s deputy director of economic planning and development. “There are people with stop watches calculating the dwell times, which is the amount of time people spend waiting for the bus.”
While no other airports are jumping to match Logan’s free-ride offer just yet, many are watching closely.
“We applaud Logan’s efforts and the fact their parking is full,” said Perry Cooper, spokesperson for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has a 13,000-space parking garage. “We have not reached a point where we are filling our garage regularly. However, we have been working to encourage light rail use with discount parking offers for sporting events to relieve the traffic and parking problems downtown.”
With 25,000 parking spaces on property, Los Angeles International Airport doesn’t have a parking problem either, but, as part of a longstanding emissions reduction program, it does operate express “FlyAway” shuttle buses to Van Nuys and Union Station (Fare: $7), Westwood (Fare: $10) and Irvine Station (Fare $25).
Miami International Airport (MIA) isn’t reporting a parking crunch either. But while “a good portion” of airport revenue does come from parking fees, airport spokesperson Marc Henderson says the airport is delighted that, since it began operating in December 2010, more than a million people have used the Airport Flyer Express bus that goes to Miami Beach and downtown Miami. The bus has luggage racks, free Wi-Fi and makes the trip in 35 minutes.
“It’s a good way to get people down to the beach who may not want to rent a vehicle and deal with parking,” said MIA spokesperson Marc Henderson. “At $2.35 each way, the service is inexpensive. And it’s done well,” he said.
Moving people out of cars at the airport can be a challenge. While there is a local bus route in Houston that serves the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in August 2011, the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to cancel express bus service to the airport “because of low passenger numbers,” said airport spokesperson Darian Ward.
Back in Boston, airport spokesperson Matthew Brelis says while “no determination has yet been made,” passengers may find that the free bus rides from Logan into town extend past the 90-day test period. Brelis says that “improving curbside traffic flow and reducing parking congestion” is the main reason the airport is offering the free rides, but “if passengers are thrilled with the service and delighted that it’s free, it’s icing on the cake.”
Photos courtesy Boston Logan Airport