In short term, airport parking won’t always be a Breeze


My wife and I went to dinner Saturday night at C.J. Cannon’s restaurant, fully expecting the place to be packed.

And it was.

What we didn’t foresee was the parking mess at the Vero Beach Regional Airport, where the long-term lots were full, the overflow grass lot was covered with dozens of cars, and every patch of ground in the short-term lot was occupied – including the entire right lane approaching the exit.

“That’s not unusual,” Airport Director Todd Scher was saying Monday, when I shared my experience in a phone call.

Actually, it’s a typical scenario when Breeze Airways, which has enjoyed tremendous success since adding Vero Beach to its route map 13 months ago, has two of its passenger jets on the ground at the same time – especially this time of year, when seasonal residents and visitors flock to our seaside community.

That was the situation when my wife and I arrived at the airport shortly after 7 p.m.

In fact, after being seated at our table, which offered a nice view of the runways, we watched two Breeze flights take off within an hour of each other.

“It happens,” Scher said. “And when it does, things can get very crowded out here.”

He went on to explain that the terminal building and parking lots aren’t large enough to accommodate the situations created when one flight is late and another is on time.

The confluence of arriving and departing passengers – along with the presence of the people who drop them off or pick them up at the airport – can produce a greater demand than the facilities can comfortably handle.

“Sometimes, we’re overwhelmed,” Scher said. “We’re aware that it’s not an ideal situation.

It’s sufficient, if you stretch the definition of the word. We certainly want to make sure it’s as convenient as we can make it for everybody, and we’re doing all we can.

“But the truth is: We don’t have the facilities of a big airport.”

That’s nobody’s fault.

Airport improvements are coming – some as soon as this summer, when a shelter for the outdoor baggage-claim area will be installed, and passenger walkways to and from the terminal will be covered.

In the coming months, two former C.J. Cannon’s banquet rooms will be transformed into new public restrooms and rental-car kiosk area.

The city also has received a Florida Department of Transportation grant that will be available in July and used to pay the design and construction costs to expand the airport’s paved parking facilities.

That will be money well spent.

At the moment, the grass lot has problems – especially at night, when, because the field isn’t equipped with lights, the dirt entrances are difficult to see. The same goes for pedestrians maneuvering their way through small holes, divots, ruts and other uneven patches of the ground.

As for personal safety …

After dinner, as my wife and I walked through the darkened lot to get to our car, she looked around and said, “If you weren’t with me, I wouldn’t feel very comfortable out here.”

Scher said airport operations personnel regularly check the condition of the grass lot, and he planned to explore the possibility of installing temporary lighting there. But he quickly added, “Until November, there was no one parking there.

Certainly, the return of Daylight Savings Time at 2 a.m. Sunday will help, as will Breeze’s plans to drastically reduce the number flights here during the summer months, starting on May 1.

According to Scher, Breeze will discontinue its wildly popular seasonal service between Vero Beach and Islip, New York – at least through September – and cut back on flights to and from White Plains, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut.

For example: Breeze’s Vero Beach schedule includes a combined 226 arrivals and departures in March, but that number drops to about 70 in May.

“The demand should ease up a bit,” Scher said.

As for the parking chaos in the short-term lot, Scher said there’s not much that can be done. The airport, which is owned by the city but funds its own operations, doesn’t have the money to expand the facility.

“People are resourceful,” Scher said. “They’re going to find a way to park, even if they have to use their imagination. … That’s become the cell-phone lot for people waiting to pick up passengers, so they’re usually not there long.”

But to let motorists park in spaces designated for others, including the handicapped? To allow people to park in a lane of traffic? Shouldn’t the Vero Beach Police Department step in?

Scher, as fair-minded a person as you’ll meet, was concerned about the ill-will generated by bringing in the police.

“Do we really want our police officers to write tickets,” he asked, “because our airport isn’t ready for this level of airline service?”

Maybe we don’t need them to write tickets, but, in those two-jets-on-the-ground situations, we might want them on site to shoo away the parking scofflaws.

Of course, the city could start charging to park at the airport – but Scher said he doesn’t expect it to happen anytime in the near future.

“We’re shying away from charging for parking until we believe we have a product worth paying for,” he said. “Right now, we don’t feel that we do.”

But it’s coming.

The parking facilities will be expanded and, eventually, all of them will be paved and lit.

Then the city, which never before needed to cope with this level of commercial airline service, will begin charging for their use.

“We’re still in the learning phase,” Scher said. “Going in, when the Breeze people told us they wanted to come here, we didn’t know anything. We told them what we had, in terms of facilities, and they were fine with it.

“There was no way any of us could have anticipated what would happen,” he added.

“Breeze’s impact has been much, much bigger than anyone expected, and it has happened very quickly.”

That’s not a bad thing.

Vero Beach has warmly embraced the service Breeze has brought to this community, and we can only hope the airline expands its offerings here. The flights are usually full, or close to it. Our airport has never been busier.

But if you haven’t been there in a while – and you happen to go on a night when there are two Breeze jets on the ground – don’t waste your time driving through the short-term lot.

Park on the grass.

And bring a flashlight.

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