RelayRides Plans to Disrupt Airport Parking and Rental Cars in a Big Way

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A new service gives travelers free parking at airports—with a free car wash and a free shuttle to and from the terminal thrown in as well. Yes, there is a catch.

On Tuesday, the peer-to-peer car rental service RelayRides is announcing a new service that could change the way travelers deal with cars—the ones left behind at your home airport, and the ones you rent while on a trip.

Earlier this summer, RelayRides—a “sharing economy” business that matches renters up with car owners willing to lend their vehicles out for a fee—launched a new tool allowing cars to be listed at (or near) airport locations. “Until now, members had to list cars at their home locations,” RelayRides CEO Andre Haddad told me at the time. Because of strong demand for discounted rental cars by travelers, Haddad explained, “owners can make a lot of money listing their cars at airports. Something like 50% of all car rentals are at airports.”

Dozens of airports now feature RelayRides listings, but each rental scenario is a little different. Sometimes, an owner will pick up a renter at the airport and hand over the keys; other times, owner and renter coordinate some sort of pickup/dropoff logistics, which may or may not be on the airport grounds.

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Now, though, RelayRides is offering a service that streamlines the process, removes the need for coordination, and altogether makes renting much easier for owner and renter alike. Car owners traveling out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) can leave their vehicles at a RelayRides-run parking lot near the airport. The owners hop a free shuttle to the gateway, they get to park for free for the duration of their travels, and their vehicles get a car wash while they’re gone. In exchange, owners allow RelayRides to rent out the vehicle to travelers—who get access to a car that costs up to 40% less than a typical rental car at the airport. Reservations for the service are available now, with airport rentals officially starting on August 9.

For now, the service is only available at SFO, though RelayRides expects to expand rapidly. “We expect these airport features to comprise around 50% of our company’s total business within six to eight months,” RelayRides director of communications Steve Webb told me. “And we expect it to be a major catalyst for on-going growth, which is currently at an all-time high.” According to the company’s press release, “RelayRides expects airport rentals to make up the majority of its total revenue within one year.”

If RelayRides’ airport operation sounds familiar, that’s because there already are car-sharing services doing basically the same thing in select spots around the country. A startup called FlightCar launched at SFO in February, giving owners valet service at the terminal, free parking, a car wash, and a gas card worth up to $10 per day the vehicle is loaned out to renters. Hubber is another peer-to-peer rental service introduced at LAX in June. Because RelayRides is such a huge player in the peer-to-peer rental car market, though, the company has the potential to disrupt airport car rentals (and parking) on a larger scale.

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For obvious reasons, the companies running airport parking garages and rental car businesses are likely to fight RelayRides’ initiative. FlightCar was sued earlier this year by San Francisco authorities, who accused the car-sharing business of failing to comply with regulations and to pay necessary fees. FlightCar countered by tweaking its business model and clarifying that a portion of its profits went to the airport.

RelayRides hasn’t released the terms of its relationship with SFO, but Webb said the company plans on working out an arrangement. “We are working to be compliant with the airport authorities,” he said. “We have not yet finalized a fee, but fully expect to pay one.”

Still, there may be some battles ahead for car-sharing services as they push further into the airport space, which is the bread and butter for the Hertzes and Avises of the world. “It’s these disruptive business models that are upsetting the apple cart against these traditional business models that are playing by the rules,” Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental News, told the Boston Globe. (In addition to SFO, FlightCar is also available at Boston Logan airport.) “The nitty-gritty of the rules has yet to be tested.”

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Strictly from the perspective of owners considering renting their vehicles out from the aiport while they’re traveling, While RelayRides is bigger and better known than FlightCar, and both provide free parking and car washes for owners, FlightCar offers something extra: money. Under FlightCar’s agreement, owners can now expect to get paid starting at $10 per basic rental, ranging up to $20 per day’s rental for a newer luxury vehicle.

That’s better than merely getting free parking and a car wash while you’re away. But for many owners, there’s no amount that’d get them on board with the idea that there’s a stranger sitting behind the wheel of their shiny new automobile.