Airport parking lots and garages are filling up around the country as a surge in holiday flying coincides with more people opting to drive rather than using transit or ridesharing services during the pandemic.
Several major airports have created systems that let passengers reserve parking, which officials say is the best way to guarantee vehicle space.
At Reagan National in Arlington, Va., one garage filled up over the weekend, while earlier this month the airport came within a dozen parking spaces of being full. But Rob Yingling, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said passengers should find enough room to park at both airports during this holiday week and urged travelers to check availability online.
"Even if a facility displays 'full,' advance reservations will be honored there," he said.
Bustling parking facilities are one more way the aviation industry is feeling a strain during the busiest holiday travel season in nearly two years. It’s also part of a shift seen in commuter preferences during the pandemic, as more people choose personal vehicles over sharing space with strangers on public transit or in a rideshare.
When far fewer people were flying early in the pandemic, airports closed economy lots and suffered steep drops in revenue from lost parking fees. Most lots have reopened, but not all, which is contributing to challenges as millions head out on Thanksgiving holiday trips.
The Transportation Security Administration has logged 8.5 million people through its checkpoints since Friday and expects to see 20 million through Sunday, which is forecast to be the busiest day for air travel since the public health crisis began. Yet airport leaders say it’s not only sheer traveler volume putting pressure on parking facilities, but also a shift in how people decide to get to the airport and the types of trips they take.
Stacey Sunday, a spokesperson for Reno-Tahoe International Airport, said people are taking extended excursions while working remotely, leaving cars parked for longer than in the past. After the Nevada airport’s lots filled up in the summer, managers developed contingency plans for the holidays that include the use of 700 additional spots outside the airport, while also organizing shuttle buses.
"It is expensive to invest in these shuttles and the drivers, but putting our passengers first, it's worth it," Sunday said.
For passengers eager to see family — many for the first time in months — finding somewhere to park is one more hurdle to navigate before celebrating.
Patrick Koro, 27, is planning to leave an extra 90 minutes to find a parking spot when he flies from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to San Diego this week. The options online are listed as "sold out," and Koro said he doesn't have prospects for getting to the airport other than driving.
"It leaves you a little bit hanging," he said. "When you show up, you want to have an option to park."
While many large airports have vast economy lots, difficulty retaining shuttle bus drivers could cause headaches for parkers even after finding a spot.
Jonathan Dean, a spokesperson for Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, said the airport’s 23,000 parking spaces are likely to be plenty this holiday week. But, he said, passengers using shuttles to get to the terminal “may experience occasional service delays during peak periods throughout the holiday season due to the nationwide driver shortages.”
At Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, managers closed lots early in the pandemic only to see demand at the leisure-dominated airport rebound this year. Ryan Smith, an airport spokesperson, said the lot closest to the terminal regularly filled up this summer, recording some of its highest passenger volumes.
When that lot fills up, passengers are directed to economy parking and can take a shuttle to the terminal. But over the summer, Smith said, finding bus drivers was a challenge.
“One day we ended up having airport staff manage some shuttle buses because we had a couple guys just walk out and find better opportunities,” he said.
For a smaller airport that competes on convenience and uses the marketing tagline “just plain easy,” reliable parking is especially important, Smith said: “That’s why people use us and we need to make sure that we’re not falling down.”
The airport has opened a new cell-phone lot to try to ease congestion and turned the old lot into employee parking, freeing more spots near the terminal for passengers. But despite the changes, the terminal lot filled up last weekend.
“We’re fairly confident at some point today it will fill and it will basically be full throughout the holiday,” Ryan said Tuesday.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the facility is facing a combination of factors: More people choosing to drive, some spots still closed because of the pandemic, and a shortage of bus drivers. The airport last week touted “exciting” new light-rail stations as a better alternative.
"This holiday season, start your travel on the right note," Sound Transit Board Chairman Kent Keel said in a statement. "Avoid the hassle of traffic and search for parking. Choose the reliable and affordable option to get to the airport. Ride Link light rail."
In Texas, Koro said he considered parking near a rail line and taking the train, but decided that would have created headaches of its own. His strategy: Hope for the best when it comes to finding a spot.
“It might be a bit of a scramble,” he said.