July 19, 2018

As both domestic and international passenger volumes increase at our nation’s airports, so does the possibility for overcrowding and increased congestion. This is especially true of Tampa International Airport (TPA), which has been experiencing rapid growth over recent years—growth that has ultimately increased congestion on the terminal curbsides and pushed the airport’s existing rental car facilities to capacity.

To remove rental car traffic from the airport’s congested roadways and curbside, Gresham Smith was engaged to manage the design of a 2.6 million-square-foot, off-site, Rental Car Center (RCC), and a 1.4-mile automated people-mover (SkyConnect) to link the RCC to the Main Terminal by way of the airport’s Economy Parking garages, which were also designed by Gresham Smith and house approximately 11,000 parking spaces. Both the RCC and SkyConnect were opened to the public in February 2018.

The Rental Car Center includes a new remote curbside for airport customer drop-off and pick-up as an alternative to the terminal curbsides. In addition to accommodating 16 rental car brands and providing storage capacity for more than 8,600 vehicles, the RCC houses a new remote bag check amenity that supports multiple airline carriers.

In today’s post, I explore how this new service—along with Southwest’s (SWA) new Self-Tagging kiosks at the Main Terminal, which were also constructed as part of the program—are increasing capacity and significantly improving the customer experience at TPA.


Lessening the Burden 

As an airport terminal typically only has so much real estate to expand, it stands to reason that the more you can decentralize services such as rental cars or bag check, the more you can get out of a terminal before you’re forced to do something quite radical. In TPA’s case, that ultimately means constructing a new North Terminal, which is a multibillion-dollar endeavor. In the interim, the airport is working to extend the life of the existing terminus and increase capacity from 20 million to 35 million customers annually.

The Rental Car Center is the foundation for a three-phase master plan created to decongest and accommodate growth at TPA. Not only does the RCC provide much-needed space for the rental car industry to grow, but it also removes a significant amount of traffic from the Main Terminal roadways and curbsides. Initial estimates projected the RCC would remove an average of 7,400 vehicles a day from the terminal roadways, or 2.7 million vehicles annually.

Additionally, the RCC’s new remote bag check amenity provides a huge side benefit for customers as it allows them to return their vehicle at the RCC, print their bag tag, drop their bag off at the counter, and then ride the SkyConnect directly to the Main Terminal without the burden of carrying their bags on the train and then to the ticketing counter at the Main Terminal.


The Numbers Don’t Lie

The success of the Rental Car Center at TPA is perhaps best evidenced by the metrics. In March of 2018 alone, TPA reported actual counts of 10,400 vehicles per day removed from the terminal roadways, which equates to 3.8 million trips annually—approximately 40 percent higher than projected. Year-on-year rental car transactions were up by approximately 12.3 percent for the same peak period.

The speed and convenience of the SkyConnect automated people-mover system has also resulted in higher use of the remote curbside, as well as higher use of the remote Economy Parking. These small but significant changes in customer behavior have also contributed to the better-than-expected traffic reductions at the Main terminal.

When the RCC opened, only three airlines were represented at the common-use remote bag check. Nonetheless, since opening, and with just three airlines represented, an average of 1,082 bags have been checked remotely per day, reaching a peak of 2,451 bags a day in April 2018. Those numbers represent more than three times the airport’s initial projection, and it’s estimated that 10 percent of all bags are now checked through the RCC. That number will only grow as more airline carriers come on board.



Self-Check-in Technology Takes Off 

As part of the Rental Car Center/SkyConnect program, Gresham Smith designed the relocation of the entire Southwest Airlines ticket lobby at TPA’s Main terminal. Southwest is the largest carrier at TPA, accounting for approximately 36 percent of all passengers flying through the airport.

The new design included the implementation of Self-Tagging kiosks (STKs) which allow customers to print their own bag tags and tag their checked luggage. The STKs replace approximately 60 percent of the space previously occupied by the airline’s traditional ticketing arrangement. The self-tagging model streamlines the check-in process for customers and allows for higher throughput without significantly increasing the amount of space leased by the airline.

The STK implementation at TPA was part of a larger rollout that Gresham Smith has participated in across Southwest’s entire network. It’s interesting to note that the airline initially thought they’d still require a larger number of fully staffed ticket counters to allow customer service agents to handle the various anomalies that can’t be addressed at a Self-Tagging station. They soon discovered, however, that customers can do far more at the STKs than originally anticipated, and increasingly SWA diverts customers to the kiosks to take care of additional service items such as flight changes.

Given the improved operational efficiencies, coupled with their customers’ appetite for this new self-check-in technology, SWA has recognized the benefit of implementing the STKs systemwide and tasked Gresham Smith with designing the next wave of the rollout.


Little Things Add Up 

Along with providing capacity improvements to TPA, both the remote bag check and SWA Self-Tagging kiosk amenities ultimately put the customer in control of their destiny by letting them decide how much time they spend waiting in line. In terms of customer satisfaction that is key, as it’s the little things that add up.

The same can be said of the numbers associated with the remote bag check service. If processing upwards of 1,000 bags a day doesn’t sound like a big deal, just think of what that translates to annually. With 365 days in a non-leap year, that daily count equates to more than 365,000 bags per annum. Given the new amenity’s popularity and the addition of all the major carriers, it’s not unreasonable to think that figure could quickly become half a million or more bags processed per year. And that is no small thing.