By Ian McMurtry
The Rise of the Cell Phone Lot
Not long after the start of the 2000s, a unique blend of technological growth and a push for security enhancements created what one could consider to be the most short-term lot you find at an airport: the cell phone lot. But from simple origins, these lots have blossomed into being a cornerstone of arriving passenger pickup.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a growing demand to limiting traffic in front of terminals, forcing people to look for a new location for parties to meet. In America’s car-heavy culture, prior decades had seen drivers run circles around the arrivals level of airports as they waited for loved ones and business colleagues. However, the rise of cell phones from previous decades meant that people were more mobile than before, pushing forward the idea of a lot dedicated to those to wait for a phone call from the arriving party.
The original cell phone lots would start to take root in the western U.S. as Seattle and Los Angeles would debut designated lots for locals to use starting in 2004. The goal was to simply remove the need for cars to run the airport loop and cause congestion, especially over the holidays. The trend quickly caught on, with some even adding individual lots for individual terminals.
By the end of the decade, over 50 cell phone lots were being utilized, most at the largest airports across the country. Most abide by a limited time allowance to wait for a phone call, with the majority falling between 20 minutes to 1 hour and require that passengers stay in or around their vehicle. Airports will usually display the time limit on site and airport police will patrol the sites to make sure that rules are followed.
And over the years, the amenities have slowly improved as the demand for cell phone lots took off. Tampa International Airport opened its cell phone lot to food trucks in 2013, with the goal being to increase demand for the lots, create revenue for the airport, and benefit the food truck business in the Tampa area.
“Airports have recognized that their cellphone waiting lots have great customer-service potential. It not only provides a food option to cellphone lot users but also to airport and nearby employees as well as residents,” said Tampa Airport spokesman Jason Zielinski in 2013.
Pilot programs were launched by 2017 to bring food trucks to other airports, primarily located in the western part of the U.S. Phoenix and Seattle took the initiative with pilot runs but were met with varied success.
And other airports offer more than just the occasional bite to eat. Airports in cities ranging in all shapes and sizes from Daytona Beach to St. Louis offer an array of options to passengers, including park benches and flight boards with rotating information that matches what the flight boards in the terminal read. Others have brought WiFi to these lots, allowing better connectivity for those waiting but can’t access airport terminal WiFi. Others — like Baltimore Thurgood Marshall International Airport — offer electric charging stations for waiting drivers to access.
To make sure that the lots are reaching their full potential, airports have recognized that sometimes repositioning these sites will keep traffic flowing. When Kansas City started construction of its new terminal, the western entrance to its cell phone lot was removed and the lot’s size was shrunk. However, the airport has since moved the entire lot north of the terminal complex and away from the construction.
This new facility, located behind the cargo facilities on Brasilia Avenue, gave the airport the ability to offer 90 parking spots for passengers alongside 30 limo and bus stalls and 50 taxi spots. A restroom and dispatch building were also able to be added to the new site, all while not causing a single day where lots weren’t available, keeping the duo-terminal’s roadways as clear as possible.