XNA responds to passenger growth with $35 million parking deck

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,799 views 

The start of spring break, Wal-Mart Stores’ annual shareholders meeting, and vendor events the retailer hosts are examples of peak periods at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in Highfill.

“We have actually run out of [parking] spaces a time or two in the past year,” XNA board member Philip Taldo said.

But it’s those key moments for which the airport must plan. “That’s when you want to do a good job,” Taldo said. “You want to put on a good face for them.”

The rise in airline passengers at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport has led to increased parking demand. Between 2011 and 2016, total passengers rose 19% to 1.33 million, from 1.12 million. Enplanements, or the number of people flying out, increased at the same rate to 669,487, from 562,747. People deplaning, or those flying to XNA, was up 18% to 668,555, from 565,162. By comparison, enplanements at Tulsa International Airport have been flat at 1.35 million, over the same period.

For 2017, XNA had previously projected enplanements would rise 4%. So far, they’re up 8%.

“Seventy percent of our traffic out there is business people,” Taldo said. “And they like to get in, get parked and move pretty fast and have a convenient experience there.”

Over the past 15 years, XNA has worked to keep the lots from being overly full by adding more than 2,500 parking spaces. Recently, XNA officials signed off on a $35 million, four-story parking deck to boost the total number of spaces by 34% to 4,631. The project has been in the works for the past three to four years, Taldo said.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is building the deck to keep parking near the terminal, improve operations for rental car companies and allow for covered parking, a first at XNA. “It offers that premium product,” airport director Kelly Johnson said. “We’re excited.”

The parking deck is expected to be completed in August 2018. The first floor of the deck will be for rental cars, and the remaining floors will be for passengers. Plans are in the works for another parking deck exclusively for rental cars, and construction on it might start in three to five years, Taldo said.

Along with the second parking deck, an airport access road is also in the works. The plan was for the road to run from the Springdale bypass to the south entrance of the airport. But the project has been “mired in environmental studies, and there’s a lot of things going on in that area,” Taldo said. Funding is also an issue because the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t provide money for projects that aren’t exclusively for airport use. One option, Taldo said, is to see whether the state and the FAA would partner on the road project. “We think that’s a win-win situation going forward.”

Nabholz started construction on the four-story parking deck in mid-Jan., said Jeff Gattis, senior project manager. Crews have been preparing its pad. The structure will be made of concrete, and columns should start being poured in about two months.

Gattis said the most challenging aspect of the project is how close it will be built to the airport terminal. The site won’t allow for mobile cranes, so two tower cranes must be placed. A temporary road for construction traffic has also been built. The number of workers who will build the parking deck will vary. It’s about 30 people per day now, but it will rise to as many as 200 when the concrete work starts.

“It’s such a big floor plan it will facilitate having two crews,” Gattis said.

The nearly 500,000-square-foot parking deck will be the largest one Gattis has overseen construction of, and it’s also his first airport parking deck. He previously oversaw construction of a 380,000-square-foot parking deck in Missouri.

Some features of the XNA parking deck will include a bank of three elevators in the northeast corner nearest to the terminal, numerous stairwells, a facade to match the terminal, and aluminum louvers to act as a sunshade system. All spaces including those on the top floor will be covered. Also, a covered walkway will be built leading to the terminal.

“It’s going to be a great project, a great addition,” Gattis said.

The parking deck will allow rental car companies a covered area for pick up and drop off rental vehicles. Now, the companies use a service lot adjacent to the terminal for pick up and drop off. The companies have 1,546 existing spaces in which to park their cars. In 2017, the airport is expected to receive $2.71 million from rental car operations.

Parking is the biggest revenue source for XNA. Between 2013 and 2016, parking revenue has risen 41% to $4.96 million. In 2014, the airport started offering valet parking, and “it’s become wildly popular,” Johnson said. Recently, the airport had 73 cars parked in the valet lot overnight, which was “a new record for us.”

Valet parking is $16 per day, and is operated by Republic Parking Systems. Passengers flying in can expect to pick up their vehicle at the curb in front of the terminal ready to go. “We spend $125,000 a year on it,” Johnson said. It was a break-even venture, but the airport has started “generating a little bit off of it.”

Also, to accommodate those parking in the lots, the airport offers a free shuttle service between the lots and terminal. The company added a second shuttle earlier this year. The short-term lot was built for people who are meeting and greeting airport passengers, but 44% of people using the lot were keeping their vehicles there overnight, Johnson said. This was pushing the “meeters and greeters” to lots further from the terminal.

The parking deck will be built on part of the short-term lot and all of the intermediate lot.

On Nov. 1, the airport increased its parking rates.

“We were a little below market,” Johnson said.

The airport’s parking lot operator manages lots across the nation and reviews how the rates compare to other airport lots. Rates have been increased routinely over the years. The daily rate for the parking deck has yet to be determined.

In March, the airport started an $800,000 project to expand its employee parking lot, which was “getting tight on space,” Johnson said. It’s also where the vehicles for the valet parking are parked. Some other projects include the addition of a mother’s room for breast feeding mothers and a pet relief area. Those two projects were added in areas for passengers after going through security checkpoints.

On April 5, American Airlines started daily, non-stop flights between XNA and Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., According to American Airlines’ website, flight time is nearly three hours, and the price for a round-trip ticket was $819 per passenger, departing at 7 p.m. April 16 for Washington and arriving back in Northwest Arkansas at 9:35 p.m. April 23. When asked about airfare rates changes related to rising fuel prices, Johnson said the airlines set the prices.

Other new airport amenities include the Core Brewing Co. pub and the Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop, which opened last year.
Editor’s note: This story was first published in the May 1 edition of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.