Charlotte Douglas International Airport is going into the busiest stretch of the year with 4,000 fewer parking spaces than last year, and officials are warning travelers to expect congestion and look for alternate ways to get to the airport.
The parking crunch stems from construction of a new hourly parking deck expected to be complete by November 2014. To accommodate the $120-million project, Charlotte Douglas tore down the old hourly decks that used to provide the closest parking option.
Right now, the airport has about 22,000 parking spaces, down from more than 26,000 last year. Next year, with the opening of the hourly decks and a new business valet deck, the airport plans to have about 28,000 parking spaces.
“By next year, I think we’ll be in a very different situation,” said interim deputy aviation director Jack Christine. “Until then, we need to manage what we have.”
The hourly deck will have 4,000 public parking spaces directly in front of the terminal. The new, 3,200-space business valet parking deck will free up public spaces that have been used to park valet cars.
But to help with pressure on airport parking this holiday season, Christine advised travelers to look for alternatives to driving to get to Charlotte Douglas. That could include carpooling, getting dropped off by a friend or taking the Sprinter bus from the transportation center uptown for $2.
While the airport’s hourly decks are under construction, there’s no way for people to park and walk a traveler into the airport. Passengers can be dropped off in front of the terminal as usual, but Christine cautions the driver must stay with the car and drop the passenger off quickly.
Travelers with mobility issues can also park in one of the lots and take a handicap-accessible shuttle to the terminal.
Here are some more tips and facts about airport parking:
• The busiest days are usually the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday and Monday afterward. Last year, 24,498 people departed from Charlotte Douglas on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and 23,475 arrived the Sunday after.
• The airport works to fill the long-term parking lots starting with Lot 1 and Lot 2, then Lot 3, then Lot 4 as an overflow option. That’s why you might see a “Closed” sign in front of Lot 3 when there are spaces open. By filling the lots sequentially, the airport is able to use its shuttle buses more efficiently to take people to the terminal, assistant aviation director Herbert Judon said.
“It allows us to pool those resources,” he said.
Charlotte Douglas will also have about 35 shuttle buses operating, and extra personnel on hand to help direct traffic.
• Christine said he expects the airport to come very close to filling its lots to capacity this year – even with an overflow lot with more than 400 spaces that has been readied off Old Dowd Road in case the main lots fill up.
The last time the airport lots filled to capacity was during the holiday season in the mid-2000s, Christine said. Airport staff still found places for people to leave their cars. “We were all out here parking cars in the grass,” he said.
• One alternative is Park’N Go, a privately-operated lot near Interstate 85 and Little Rock Road. Shuttle buses ferry travelers from the parking lot to the airport terminal and back, 24 hours a day.
Owner John Bona said the lot has more than 1,700 spaces, and is continuing to expand. He said all of the company’s 40 employees will be working during the Thanksgiving rush. Parking costs $4.95 a day.
Some of the parking congestion is due to the airport balancing its current needs against future growth. Since parking decks take years to build and cost millions of dollars, it’s best to wait until they’re definitely needed, said Christine.
“You never want to build a whole bunch of spaces you’re not going to need,” he said.
And there are other changes coming at Charlotte Douglas. The airport’s new entrance road is under construction, designed to better connect the terminal to Wilkinson Boulevard and Josh Birmingham Parkway. Some of the inbound lanes could be opened in December, Christine said, though that depends on how fast the weather lets construction proceed.
In a related project, the airport will start construction on a new, wider terminal road early next year, possibly in March, Christine said. The goal is to eventually have eight lanes in front of the terminal at the arrival and departure levels, up from the current three.
The terminal road project will likely take 2 1/2 years, Christine said. While the wider road is being built in stages, the airport will have to shift traffic between stretches of the new road and the old road.
“It will be interesting,” said Christine.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 Twitter: @ESPortillo