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APA1 2023 NEWS

Crossroads for surface access?


ICF’s Lewis Burroughs and Rob Rushmer look to the future and consider how the transition to electric and autonomous vehicles could impact on existing drop off and car parking infrastructure at airports.

Ever since an airport was first invented in the early 20th century, most people – passengers and employees – have accessed it by using an internal combustion engine car and driving there.

One hundred years later and airport surface access is changing. The vehicle may still look much like a car, but over the next twenty years access will undergo a revolution not seen since the invention of the gasoline powered car.

Other transport modes have eroded the car’s modal share since those early days, but even so, pre-COVID, on average, more than 80% of passengers travelled to a US airport by car and parking accounted for $4.2 billion of US airport revenue in 2017.

That will change and how airports respond to the changing technological needs and preserve revenues will be commercially and environmentally important.

We can think of the changes on two axes: first, what will power the vehicles of the future, and, second, how will they be used. Each combination of vehicle and use will present a different infrastructural challenge and different revenue threats and opportunities.

Power will be principally electricity and hydrogen, each of which will come with its own infrastructure requirements, but the key disrupter is likely to be how future vehicles will operate.

Whether owned and operated individually, as today, or as the future may hold as shared, pooled, connected or autonomous, the key issue appears to be that the vehicle of the future is more likely to drop-off than park.

A shared vehicle will return to the pool of available vehicles for the next user, with minimal down time. While an autonomous fleet vehicle will position itself based on demand, again reducing the time spent in one location.

The impacts for airports are obvious: increasing demand for drop-off and the need to either repurpose existing car parks, or plan ‘parking’ capacity to accommodate a more transient occupancy.

Drop-off perhaps creates the greatest challenge, but also the greatest revenue opportunity.

Many airports struggle today with drop-off capacity. The kerbside is naturally physically constrained by the frontage of the terminal. Efforts to expand drop-off capacity inevitably create parallel kerbside which stretch further from the front of the terminal requiring passengers to cross multiple lanes to reach the terminal.

Airports have managed this demand by increasing drop-off charges or providing free drop-off only in a remote car park, requiring the passenger to use a shuttle bus to access the terminal.

An increase in drop-off demand creates both the challenge of where to accommodate the demand, but also the opportunity for additional charges. And those charges will be necessary to substitute lost car park revenue.

The potential for reduced car parking demand, however, frees existing infrastructure to accommodate additional drop-off, albeit in a potentially more remote car park than adjacent to the terminal. This in turn creates the opportunity for a premium, in front of the terminal, drop-off facility, and a standard product in a remote car park.

However, autonomous vehicles, able to drop off and exit independently, are not expected to form a significant part of the fleet until the middle of this century. That leaves airports with the challenge of developing their infrastructure over the next 20-30 years without expensively closing off future opportunities.

That 20-30 years will see a progression from the means of power changing today’s vehicles, and later how those vehicles operate. Although with a range of uncertainty, it has been estimated that electric vehicles (EV) may approach 50% of the fleet by 2030 and essentially all of the fleet by 2040.

These vehicles will be either owner operated, as today, or be used in car sharing pools (Zipcar, TribeCar for example) by transport network companies (TNCs such as Lyft and Uber), or peer-to-peer (P2) car sharing (hiyacar, for instance).

The potential for greater use of third-party vehicles (whether car shared, TNC or P2P) will increase drop-off demand, but the continued use of privately owned EVs creates the opportunity for a premium car parking product with the vehicles returned to the owner fully charged.

Through this period, existing car parking infrastructure is likely to transition from traditional parking, to parking with charging to increasing use of its capacity being used for drop-off. Robotic parking solutions may offset the need to develop additional parking infrastructure, but we would caution that this may become redundant technology as autonomous vehicles will subsequently be able to tightly self-park without the need of a separate technology.

During this transition, airports run the risk of using legacy infrastructure built for one use for something for which it is potentially poorly designed.

For example, to accommodate increased drop-off demand, it is natural, and maybe even the only short-term solution, to relocate passengers and taxis into multi-storey car parks. But emissions linger longer in enclosed spaces, loading bays are limited and vehicles are forced to filter through one-way systems in single file.

This may lead to a poor customer experience in what may be the first or last time a passenger sees the airport, while vehicle operators may start to increase fees assuming they will have to wait in queue as they fight to get to their passenger.

Longer-term, 2040-2050 and onwards, EVs are expected to become increasingly autonomous, which will complete this transition from current car parking being principally areas for cars to stay into being transient spaces for drop-off.

Revenue models will need to follow this transition from charging for parking to charging for access as well as value-add services including premium drop-off, rapid charging, etc.

Finally, the emergence of mobility as a service (MaaS) offers the potential for all infrastructure to be used more efficiently, especially perhaps for airports served by train or metro.

Outside dense urban areas, the use of a metro first requires the passenger to transfer to the origin station. Often that is by car: so why not just drive to the airport in the first place?

MaaS offers the potential for a connected journey starting with a shared, pooled, hailed, or on-demand, journey to the origin station, and potentially the same onward connection to the airport (if not directly served), all within one ticket.

All of this should be good news for airports that have struggled to find space for car parking capacity. The short-term occupancy of their limited space, offers the potential to accommodate demand, generate premium revenue, and avoid the need to invest in expensive infrastructure.

Stood at a crossroads of technology and behaviour, airports face an interesting challenge to transition their infrastructure and revenue models. The challenge is apparent, but also solvable, the greatest challenge perhaps comes from the uncertain timeframes and, as always, the need for airports to plan for the short-term against a medium changing landscape.


Lewis Burroughs (head of Indian aviation) and Rob Rushmer (principal) are based at ICF’s London office.

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