The biggest problem at Logan Airport this week isn’t canceled flights or icy runways or surly TSA agents. It’s the parking.
Finding a place to stow your car is often tough at Logan, as anyone who has prowled the crowded central parking garage long enough to almost miss a flight knows well. But it’s even more trying during school vacation week, when hordes of families leave cars at the airport on their way to warmer climes, and the airport’s usual stream of business travelers keeps on coming.
This week, as many as 18,000 cars will need to be parked at Logan each day, a roughly 13 percent jump above normal. The 16,200 spaces at the airport, however, remain unchanged.
“Ironically, ground access is one of the biggest challenges the airport faces,” said Thomas Glynn, chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan.
With lots overflowing, the airport has come up with a solution usually reserved for high-end restaurants and hotels: valet parking. This week, the airport will valet 2,600 cars, paying bundled-up attendants overtime to take passengers’ keys, write down their license-plate numbers and return dates, and find a convenient spot for their vehicles before they get back. The service is free, included in the $27-a-day parking fee.
The valets squeeze arriving cars between rows of parked vehicles in the garage, with the occasional mad dash to move a car blocking someone in. This year, the airport also tucked more than 750 vehicles underneath the elevated roadway that runs between the terminals; some snow-covered sedans were stuck behind decorative pine trees there, creating a sort of frozen woodland traffic jam amid a sea of concrete.
Bostonians are used to parking woes: circling the block waiting for a spot to open up, putting out old chairs to save shoveled spaces. And while some Logan passengers are certainly glad they don’t have to hunt for a spot, others aren’t so pleased.
“I’m annoyed,” said Shawn Jeffries as he took his suitcase out of his Chevy Silverado and hurried to catch a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Wednesday. “I prefer not to leave my keys in my car and walk away.”
Logan handles more travelers on a smaller footprint of land than any other airport in the country. Not only is there little room to build lots, but a citywide parking cap that went into effect in the 1970s limits the number of spaces the airport can have. Massport is trying to find room to add 2,000 spots allowed under the cap, possibly increasing levels to the service lot between the central garage and the Hilton hotel.
But until then, the airport is stuck with what it has, even as passenger numbers increase every year, topping 30 million in 2013. Massport is working on other solutions to the parking crunch, offering discounts to take the Logan Express shuttle, expanding remote lots, and raising on-site parking rates.
“We have to be more creative about how we solve these problems,” Glynn said, “because they’re not making any more land for Logan Airport.
Logan’s parking lots hit capacity more than 50 days a year, usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when business travel peaks. The airport started the complimentary valet system four years ago to deal with the overflow, relying on overtime shifts and temporary workers — at a cost of $1 million a year — to shuffle up to 1,000 cars a day.
Last year, more than 37,413 cars were valet parked.
“It’s not the best business model,” Glynn acknowledged.
Earlier this week, a row of parking attendants fended off the cold in neon-yellow coats, hooded sweat shirts, ski pants, boots, and gloves. They carried out an intricate balancing act in the chilly central garage, with wet concrete underfoot, dingy lights overhead, and salt-crusted cars all around. Within an hour, 220 extra cars filled the aisles on the sixth floor, and the operation moved to another level, a process called “stacking.”
Each attendant fills out a ticket with a passenger’s flight and car information, including any damage, and gives one section to the car owner and leaves the rest on the dash.
A supervisor records all the data on a laptop and gives a list to the valets so that they can move each car close to a passenger’s arriving terminal. Keys are left at a valet desk in each terminal.
By 10 o’clock each night, 99 percent of the cars have a home, said supervisor Valerie Travers, who started working at Massport 28 years ago, right out of high school.
Some cars reek of wet dog or are overflowing with trash, but some attendants say that the pristine BMWs, Lexuses, and Maseratis make up for it.
“I’m in paradise,” said attendant Pedro Medina, who drives a Chrysler minivan when he’s off duty.
A few people ignore instructions to pull into the valet line, driving over cones to hunt for a spot on their own. Most do as they are told, though not always calmly.
“Between the tunnel closure and the parking, Boston is a mess,” said an agitated Laurie Barry of Litchfield, N.H., as she rolled her suitcase across the lot to catch a flight to San Francisco.
Seasoned travelers, and those who often use valets, usually don’t mind.
“All the businessmen, they’ll leave their cars anywhere,” said Susan Connolly, a Revere resident who has been a parking attendant at Logan for the last decade. “The people who have the Mercedes, the Porsches, they have no problem valeting.”
Lisa Rowe and her teenage daughter, Becca, of Plymouth, left their car with the valet on level 6, then were told to go down to level 4 to get to Terminal C. Rowe found it confusing but not all that different from other times she’s flown out of Logan: “It’s kind of a nail-biting experience anytime you park in here.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.