By Joe Brancatelli
September 15, 2010 -- During an overlong wait for the shuttle bus to an airport hotel at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle recently, I distractedly began counting the number of shuttle services marked on the curbside placards.

As I walked from kiosk to kiosk, the numbers piled up. Ten. Twenty. Car-rental shuttles. Forty. Fifty. Hotel shuttles. Sixty. Seventy. Airport-to-city transit services. Eighty. Ninety. Shuttles to off-airport parking lots. I gave up around 100, because how much can you really care about WallyPark if you don't have a vehicle in Wally's care?

But the swarm of shuttles buzzing around airport terminals and clogging already-congested airport-access roads is no joking matter. They inflate the cost of using airport-related services. They pollute the environment. They're noisy. They're inconvenient. And they're guaranteed to annoy you as a business traveler because you're convinced that the shuttle bus you're waiting for is the last to arrive.

At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, car-rental shuttle buses make a startling 800,000 trips a year to the main terminals. That's nearly 2,200 trips a day or 90 an hour. Just to get to a rental vehicle.

There is a solution to the chaos and cost and dueling fleets of airport buses operated by the car-rental firms. About two dozen of the nation's airports now have "consolidated rental facilities" that house all of the firms in a sort of shopping mall for rental cars. The all-in-one centers are served by a common shuttle-bus system, a people mover, or, in the best circumstances, allow passengers to walk from the terminals to the rental operation.

Pioneered at Sacramento International Airport nearly 20 years ago, the concept of consolidated rental facilities is clearly the future of airport car rentals. Airports in Miami and San Jose, California, opened common rental centers this summer. Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport opened its consolidated operation last fall. Six more are in various stages of construction, including at Sea-Tac, which hopes to open its rental center in 2012. At least two dozen more airports, including LAX, are planning to bring competing car-rental firms under one roof.

"We like them because we think they're good for our customers," says Sean Fitzgerald, vice president of airport properties and relations for Enterprise Holdings, parent company of the Enterprise, National, and Alamo rental firms. "It's easier to shop in a consolidated facility. We think we win when customers can shop around."

Consolidated rental centers are no panacea, of course. They are expensive to build. San Jose's new rental center was part of a $1.3 billion airport upgrade that included a new passenger terminal. The cost of a newly constructed consolidated rental is usually passed along to renters in the form of federal "passenger facility fees" tacked onto the price of most airline tickets and/or "concession recovery fees" imposed by the rental firm when you pick up your car.

And rental centers may not eliminate as many shuttle-bus trips as supporters hope. In Los Angeles, for example, airport authorities claim a new consolidated rental facility will reduce the number of shuttle trips by almost 50 percent. Yet experts at Hertz, the world's largest car-rental firm, say consolidated facilities reduce bus trips only by about 25 percent compared with when each rental firm operates its own shuttle service.

"It's not as dramatic a savings in congestion as you might think," explains Simon Ellis, Hertz's vice president of global real estate and concessions. "In the ideal world, we'd love to get out of busing altogether and have [rental centers] right near the passenger terminals so travelers can walk to their cars."

Ellis' comment underscores the stratification of the rental centers at airports around the country. The facilities are not created equal since they are almost always jerry-rigged to fit the unique contours of each individual airport.

Some consolidated rental facilities require long drives on common buses. The most obvious example: Dallas/Fort Worth, which opened its rental center 10 years ago. Similar to the experience at Houston Intercontinental andBaltimore-Washington airports, DFW travelers are herded onto a bus for the drive to the huge facility that houses all 10 of the airport's car-rental firms. The rental center is located near the airport's south entrance, and the bus transfer takes at least 10 minutes. That's a long time for business flyers to share space with leisure travelers laden down with suitcases and unfamiliar with the rental process.

Newer facilities, such as the ones opened in Atlanta and Miami, solve the busing issue by positioning the rental center on the airport's people-mover system. "Consolidated rental centers don't make a lot of sense if you can't get rid of the buses," says the executive director of an airport planning its rental center. "To spend hundreds of millions on a new building and then bus people there almost defeats the purpose of the exercise."

The best regarded of consolidated rental centers are those that allow travelers to skip an intermodal transfer altogether. The new airport terminal at Indianapolis, opened last year, is adjacent to its rental center, for example. And the vast majority of flyers at San Jose, the airport of Silicon Valley, arrive at the newly opened Terminal B. One of Terminal B's advantages? You walk from the baggage-claim area directly to the airport's new Rental Car Center and Parking Garage.

"As airports plan for their future and plot out infrastructure," explains Fitzgerald of Enterprise, "the obvious question is, 'Can we allow our customers to walk to the car rental?' You really want them to get off the flight, get their bags, and walk to their rental provider of choice."

The Fine Print…
Consolidated rental centers and common buses impact the rental companies in an interesting way: Brand-specific airport shuttle buses have always been considered an important form of point-of-sale advertising. "There is some loss of branding" when airports switch to common buses, says Ellis of Hertz. "But I think that is outweighed by the advantages of a consolidated facility done right."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.