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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on October 1, 2018

Growth creation

Gresham Smith’s Grant Clifford tells us more about how creating space in the central terminal area has helped elevate the passenger experience at Tampa International Airport.

As more and more airports worldwide reach operational capacity at their terminal complexes, they’re often left with fewer and fewer options when it comes to expanding facilities and managing congestion on roads and kerbsides.

Additional land at terminal complexes is hard to come by and starting from scratch or performing a massive reconstruction can be incredibly expensive and disruptive, meaning airports must figure out how to get more out of their existing infrastructure and leverage underutilised land.

Our team at Gresham Smith recently had the opportunity to help solve a space problem at Tampa International Airport by making some improvements at the Main Terminal and repurposing real estate on a different part of the campus. The solution meant that we were able to increase capacity and reduce congestion at the Main Terminal. Keep reading to learn why and how we settled on a remote space solution.

Going through growth

When Tampa International Airport (TPA) began updating their master plan in 2012 they were serving approximately 16 million passengers per annum and, at the time, rapidly running out of space for key functions.

Predicting strong growth, airport leadership recognised the need to act quickly to create extra capacity. And their decision was wise as passenger numbers have soared by 22.5% over the last five years to reach a record-breaking 19.6 million in 2017.

The airport’s terminal complex is a hub and spoke configuration with the Main Terminal at its core and short-term parking above, with all four airsides connected by automated people movers (APMs). A large long-term parking structure is located across the street that, back in 2012, was also home to rental car operations.

The unique configuration creates a compact, user-friendly terminal complex and the short walking distances are very popular with travellers.

The compact nature of the terminal also means that the existing kerbsides are very short and have limited capacity, making significant expansion difficult. To keep up with demand the airport has constantly modernised and made additions, but by 2012, they needed a more radical solution.

Leadership had previously explored constructing a new terminal on the north side of the site, but it was going to be an expensive option. Instead, they analysed areas of need and developed a three-phase plan to increase capacity from 20 million to 35 million passengers per annum.

The first phase of the plan, which we recently completed, focused on decongestion. The airport’s kerbsides were at capacity and two levels in the adjacent parking garage didn’t provide room to accommodate the vast number of rental cars needed during peak hours of operation.

This had resulted in the rental car companies compensating by shuttling cars between the garage and off-site service centres, to the tune of 2.7 million vehicle movements a year. These shuttling activities were contributing significantly to congestion on the Main Terminal kerbsides.

Long-term parking was also at capacity and was regularly forced to close because it was full. To alleviate the congestion and expand Tampa International Airport’s rental car operations, Gresham Smith was commissioned as part of a design-build team to tackle the airport’s biggest pinch point.

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Consolidating rental cars

After careful consideration, we developed a plan to relocate all rental car facilities 1.5-miles south of the Main Terminal next to the existing economy parking garage, well away from the point of congestion.

The existing rental car service centre sites would be reconfigured to create a greenfield site for new construction and free up additional land that will be needed for the second phase of the master plan.

By decentralising rental car services, we were able to avoid a massive reconstruction project at the Main Terminal and simultaneously minimise the impact on airport customers and operations during the construction phase of the new project.

At 2.6-million-square-feet, the new consolidated rental car centre (RCC) is the foundation for the first phase of TPA’s master plan. The facility has storage space for more than 8,600 vehicles and can process 3,200 vehicles per hour. A total of 30 wash bays and 144 fuelling stations allow the rental companies to clean, fuel and process cars in less than 15 minutes, greatly reducing turnaround times.

The new RCC doubles the number of on-site rental car brands, meaning more convenience and more choice for travellers. Additionally, a new remote kerbside at the facility provides an alternative venue for vehicles to pick-up and drop-off passengers.

A better way to bag check

Improved technology is allowing terminals to process more passengers with less real estate. As part of the improvements, we needed to relocate the ticket counter and bag check operations for the airport’s largest carrier, Southwest Airlines.

The new design includes self-tagging kiosks (STKs), which allow customers to print their own bag tags and tag their checked luggage. The self-tagging model streamlines the check-in process for customers and allows for higher throughput without increasing the amount of space leased by the airline.

The STK at TPA was also part of a larger rollout that Gresham Smith has participated in across Southwest’s entire network.

We also added the capability for a common-use remote bag check at the RCC. Customers can now return their rental car, print their bag tag and drop their bag off at the counter, all before ever heading to the Main Terminal.

Since opening, approximately 10% of all bags are now being checked at the RCC, meaning that 10% fewer customers need to go to the ticketing and bag check level at the Main Terminal. With only three airlines initially represented at the remote bag check, that number will only grow as more carriers come on board.

Maintaining customer service with SkyConnect

When new facilities are remote, it is important to have efficient, reliable transportation to maintain a high level of customer service. At TPA, the RCC is connected to the Main Terminal and the economy parking garage via SkyConnect, an Automated People Mover (APM).

The APM has replaced the economy parking shuttle bus operation, which previously operated 24/7 and also contributed to the Main Terminal’s congested kerbsides. In just four and half minutes, a customer – likely bag-free thanks to the remote check-in process – can travel on SkyConnect from the RCC and economy parking to the Main Terminal without the headache of kerbside congestion.

With six, two-car trains, the APM can move up to 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction and, as TPA continues to experience growth, the system was designed so additional cars can be added to the trains. The SkyConnect station at the Main Terminal was also designed to allow for expansion should TPA need to build additional facilities to the north.

Sustainable approach

By relocating TPA’s rental car services, we kept the Main Terminal intact and extended its life, avoiding building a new terminal or a total reconstruction that would have otherwise been necessary. After all, the most sustainable building is the one you don’t have to build.

The former rental car facilities at the long-term parking are now being repurposed to provide an additional 2,400 parking spaces that also address long-term parking capacity needs without having to construct a new structure.

We also consolidated previously developed land adjoining the new rental car centre, maximising its potential and creating space for the next phase of the master plan, which calls for a commercial development, SkyCenter, next to the new RCC.

In fact the next phase of the master plan is already underway with the airport’s administrative offices being moved to SkyCenter and the space freed up at the Main Terminal being used to add much needed kerbside capacity, further reducing congestion and supporting the airport’s growth.

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The numbers don’t lie

The RCC and SkyConnect opened on February 14 this year, and instantly removed around 10,400 vehicles a month from the Main Terminal roadways, which equates to 3.8 million trips annually – approximately 40% better than projected.

In March, alone, year-on-year rental car transactions increased by approximately 12.3%. The speed and convenience of SkyConnect has also resulted in higher use of the remote kerbside and the airport’s economy parking.

These small changes in customer behaviour have added up, contributing to better than expected traffic reductions at the Main Terminal.

Sometimes the best solution isn’t the most obvious one. By moving TPA’s rental car services away from the Main Terminal and employing an APM, we were able to improve travel times – and the customer experience.

Indeed, TPA’s new RCC and SkyConnect help provide the top-notch travel experience passengers have come to expect from the airport that finished second in JD Power’s 2017 North American Airport Satisfaction Study. 

About the authors

Grant Clifford is a senior vice president in Gresham Smith’s Tampa Aviation studio with more than 30 years of experience on a variety of aviation projects.

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