Thoughts on FAT airport expansion

If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard the news that Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) will be expanded in the next couple of years, and they’re calling it FATforward because why not. This will be the first customer-facing expansion since 2006, when the international arrivals area was built. Since then, there have been some changes on the air side, but nothing major. Of course, the biggest expansion in FAT history was in 2002, when the second-level concourse was built with jet bridges (title picture).

The expansion has two components: terminal expansion, and parking expansion. Let’s talk about parking first!

Parking Expansion

Expanding parking isn’t cheap, and they’re looking to spend $45,837,000 on this component. The first phase, to be finished by summer 2019, is a new surface lot for long-term parking. By 2022, they want a total of 600 new stalls in a new 3-story parking deck.

For the past few decades, parking has been considered a revenue source for airports. They can charge high fees, and people don’t have a choice but to pay it. This has been true at FAT as well, one of the few places outside downtown Fresno to charge for parking.

However, technology has added competition to airport parking monopolies, popping a whole in some budgets.

The emergence of app-based ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft has transformed the way business travellers get to and from the airport. And it has also blown a hole in the finances of many airports. Under threat, particularly in North America, is their income from car parks, which makes up two-fifths of non-airline-related revenues across the continent, and car-rental concessions, which brings in a further one-fifth. Revenues from parking are falling short of forecast budgets by 10% or more per year, airport managers say. Many airports at first tried to ban Uber’s and Lyft’s cars from their taxi ranks, but drivers found ways round it, in some cases picking up rides from nearby houses. Now more are allowing Uber and Lyft to use their facilities and are looking at ways to make up the lost revenue from elsewhere.

The Economist

The Federal Aviation Administration reported in November that the $4 billion in fees collected last year for parking and ground transportation represented nearly 42 percent of the $9.6 billion in airport revenue from sources other than airline fees. Money collected from rental car companies, excluding the fees that airport operators charge rental car customers to help pay for the construction of new facilities, added an additional nearly $1.8 billion. The combination far exceeded the fees the airports collected from food and beverage outlets, stores and hotels.

New York Times

On top of that, autonomous cars are on the horizon. Nobody knows when they will be fully market-ready, but it will happen. And when it does, the price of ride-hail will go down.

Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Atmosphere Research, said the current declines in income are just the tip of the iceberg. As autonomous cars gain traction, he said, “the airport parking gravy train is going to dry up.” The future, he said, could bring less ticket counter space and more retail and food and beverage offerings, as airports struggle to come up with revenue to replace what they have lost.

New York Times

Airports have responded to the reduced revenue by increasing parking rates, but that in turn only makes it more attractive to take an Uber.

Does this mean Fresno is making a huge mistake?

The good news is, the folks behind FATForward have clearly been reading the news. The bad news is, getting to the airport is about to cost you more money if you arrive by car.

New Airport Parking Fees

  • Long-term parking will go up from $8 a day to $12 a day, starting July 1, 2019
  • Covered garage parking will cost $15 a day starting July 1, 2022 (if the construction is done by then)
  • Short term parking will go from $1.00 every 20 minutes to $3.00 an hour starting July 1, 2019 (that is, if you park for 20 minutes, or 30, or 40, you’ll pay $3)
  • All Uber/Lyft rides will have an added $3 fee for drop-off AND pick-up
  • Taxis and shuttles will have to pay an annual fee of $250 or $500 or $1,000 (unsure what qualifies for each rate)
  • New economy lot to cost $8 a day (ie current long-term rate), I assume this is the new area they will pave
  • Cell-phone parking lot will remain free, expand slightly, but be moved further away

They need to raise fees to pay for all this, and they know that will push people to Uber, so they’ve added new fees there. Brilliant! The airport defends themselves by stating that parking rates haven’t increased since 2000, and the economy lot will remain affordable. Additionally, they state that FAT is the only airport in the US that has not been charging ground transportation providers (taxis, shuttles) a fee. So in that regards, this is all reasonable.

And what about an autonomous car future, where ride-hailing is cheap, so parking demand craters? That’s something not addressed.

My thoughts on this is that it makes sense to expand parking because the current lots do get full at peak season. They plan on expanding on areas that are currently vacant, so no real change in land-use. Additionally, it makes sense to charge people for these projects, because they’re mighty expensive. Adding a fee for ride-hail is also rational.

And of course, anyone pinching pennies still has the bus as an option. :/

One downside is that they plan on building the garage in the expansion area – aka further away – areas. Why would people pay more to park in a garage if it’s further away?

Here is the map of where the new parking will be:

Terminal Expansion

The most exciting part of this proposal – the architecture – doesn’t exist yet. Unfortunately, that means we can only look at the floor plans.

The real purpose of this expansion (to cost $69,290,0000) is to improve the international arrival and departure experience. When the “Federal Inspection Station” was opened in 2006, to accommodate Mexicana flights to Guadalajara, it was done as cheap as possible. This was rational, as no one knew how successful the flights would be. In fact, that airline even went out of business. However, now we have two airlines (AeroMexico and Volaris) flying to two cities in Mexico – Guadalajara and Morelia. At this point, it’s clear that international flights are here to stay.

Currently, passengers exit the plane, walk down stairs, across some asphalt, and into the small immigration room. Then they wait in the baggage claim room for the bags to come out and be swept by drug dogs. And then they can go through customs. The space is small, and there are very few amenities. The flights to Mexico are on larger planes, so the whole experience is poor.

Current plan. You can see where the two planes stop and where people walk

The expansion will add a new second-floor area near where the international planes currently stop, so that passengers can enter and leave the plane on bridges. Additionally, there will be new seating areas and concessions. Currently, the Mexico flights all leave between 10pm and 2am. During the day, other airlines would be able to use these gates for domestic passengers. This will make it easier for other airlines to add larger jets.

Other additions are:

  • Expanded TSA area
  • New concessions (mini food court?) just past TSA area
  • Two second-floor gates with waiting area and small concession (and I think restrooms)
  • Expanded immigration hall
  • Expanded international baggage claim
  • Expanded baggage handling for all flights

Finally, it looks like the existing customs area will open up as a “public reception hall” with access directly to and from the curb, restrooms, and another concession. This will make the experience better for people waiting to pick up their family members.

First, lets look at how the expansion will look using my crudely drawn shaped on a satellite view. I think this is valuable because the plans do a poor job at showing the existing plan.

And here is the actual first floor plan

And the second floor plan

Overall, it’s a good plan. With the caveat that we don’t know what the architecture will look like. I love the 2002 expansion, but the current international area is super ugly. Hopefully the expansion has a lot of glass and light.

One thing of note: it is unclear how expansion will impact future airline operations. More gates with bridges are obviously better for passengers, but they come at a real cost. The airlines will be charged a higher amount for the use of FAT to pay for this, which the report says has all been agreed to. However, low cost carriers like Spirit are more than happy to use ground boarding as long as they get to pay less in fees. On the other hand, carriers like Southwest care more about turning planes very quickly, and jet bridges can mean faster boarding.

And in closing, here is the timeline:

  • February 2019, council to vote on new parking fees and start of environmental review
  • June 2019: Council to approve design process (the architecture)
  • February 2021: Construction start on the big stuff
  • October 2022: Open for business

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