San Antonio's 1.8 million-square-foot CONRAC houses 14 rental car companies, 2,600 parking...

San Antonio's 1.8 million-square-foot CONRAC houses 14 rental car companies, 2,600 parking spaces, and an enclosed sky bridge. The $178 million structure opened in January 2018.

Photo by Jeff Jarvis.

Airport consolidated rental car facilities (CONRACs) first appeared at airports in the ‘90s. A number of reasons influenced airports to collocate all rental car companies servicing their passengers including:

  • Reducing the number of rental car buses coming to the airport curb
  • Redirecting rental car traffic away from areas of congestion
  • Repurposing ground space currently used for rental car operations
  • Improving the rental car customer experience
  • Providing the rental car industry room to expand

Many of the early CONRAC projects addressed these needs by building a new remote facility serviced by a common bus. Examples include airports in Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Phoenix.  

The programming and planning for these facilities assumed that the ratio of rental car customers to airplane passengers would follow each airport’s historical pattern as passenger numbers increased. These facilities have, by and large, appropriately fulfilled their intended purpose.

In the years since these CONRAC projects commenced, a number of factors have affected the goals for these facilities and how they are programmed and planned.  

Some of the factors that are driving the development of CONRAC projects today include the elimination of busing.  

In an effort to reduce the ongoing costs, congestion, air pollution, and long and uncertain customer dwell time that come with busing, many airports have sought to locate rental car facilities within a short walk of their terminals. These facilities can provide direct access between rental car operations and the terminal for pedestrians while simultaneously removing rental car vehicular traffic from terminal roadways.

San Jose, San Antonio, Orlando, and Nashville are examples of this approach. Other airports with central terminal area space constraints replaced buses with automated people movers, such as the case with San Francisco, Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and, eventually, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Another factor is integration with public parking. The floor-to-floor heights, structural grid, lighting levels, security requirements, and level of finish of a rental car garage are different from those in a common parking garage. Even so, there are a number of ways that a facility can support either or both functions.

Many airports are finding good reasons to build facilities that accommodate both purposes while also ensuring adaptability so that one function can grow into the other and vice versa, in the short and long term. Often both functions want to be in the same location in order to provide a high level of customer service to parking customers and rental car customers. As a result, the same structure may have parking on some levels and rental car on others.  

San Jose, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago O’Hare, Newark, and Bradley are all examples of this dual-functional approach.

Lastly, CONRACs are increasingly becoming integrated with ground transportation. Many airports are now using the infrastructure associated with rental car component as the anchor in a total ground transportation solution.  

Integration of the various modes can maximize the value of transportation assets while providing flexibility to accommodate changes in customer mode preference over time. In additional to being cross-utilized for parking demands, these CONRAC/multi-modal facilities are also being designed to accommodate regional bus service, off-site hotels, parking shuttles, local transit, and rideshare services.  

Examples of this approach include Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, Columbus, Miami, Honolulu, and Providence.  

The most significant change that has happened in the development of airport CONRACs is the need to respond to the shifting dynamics of airport ground transportation in general. The impact of rideshare and the future of autonomous vehicles has been and will be felt through impacts in congestion, revenue generation, safety, and customer service.  

The need to accommodate the connection between people arriving and leaving on planes and people arriving and leaving in vehicles, will continue to grow.  The need for facilities to be able to support a shift in the mode of choice will also continue to grow. This need for adaptability will shape the next generation of CONRAC projects.

Jeff Jarvis is a principal and transportation architect for TranSystems who has lead the design of dozens of airport rental car and parking garage, bus, and train terminals across the country.