Long lines, shortage of rental cars at Phoenix airport: Here's what's going on and why

Melissa Yeager
Arizona Republic

As travelers fly into metro Phoenix to enjoy the warm weather, some of them are running hot on social media before they even leave the airport, frustrated over long lines and shortages as they try to rent a car.

Pictures posted to Twitter show long lines of people waiting for shuttle buses from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport terminals to the Rental Car Center. The buses are carrying just 15 people at a time to allow for social distancing. Travelers also complain of long waits to check-in at the Rental Car Center. 

It's a complete about-face from last year when hundreds of unused rental cars sat in parking lots as visitors abandoned their travel plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Why rental car lines are long at Sky Harbor

Heather Shelbrack, a spokesperson for Sky Harbor Airport, said the airport is trying to keep up with demand.

"In addition to extra staff at the terminal curbs, we are also running extra buses. The number varies, but we can run up to 50 buses at a given time, and this month we’ve been close to that," Shelbrack told The Arizona Republic.

She said the airport prepared for an influx of visitors during March.

"The number of buses is determined based on the projected flight volumes, and it fluctuates during the course of the day," she said. 

Lauren Luster, a spokesperson for Hertz, said the rental company has seen a surge of leisure travelers into Phoenix across all its brands, which include Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty.

She said this aligns with an overall increase in spring-break bookings and is encouraging for an industry that had cars sitting idle in the weeks after the pandemic halted nonessential travel. 

But because of the spike in demand, vehicle availability has been more limited. 

"Fleets are currently tighter in the car rental industry than they were before the pandemic but we are working hard to ensure we have vehicles in the places where we’re seeing strong demand like Phoenix," Luster told The Republic by email.

The lack of availability also is a result of the impact of the pandemic on car manufacturers, making it difficult for rental companies to obtain new cars. 

Luster said the company is working with its automotive partners "to add new vehicles to our fleet as quickly as we can while also moving vehicles to the areas with highest demand." Hertz anticipates higher demand for car rentals all summer.

Tips to get your rental car faster

If you're trying to rent a car, particularly in a destination popular for leisure travel, these tips can help speed you along:

Reserve in advance: Sky Harbor Airport and rental-car companies urge travelers to reserve in advance rather than try to get a car on the day you arrive.

Use an off-airport rental location: Luster said a neighborhood rental office may have more availability than the airport location. 

Join a rewards program. Hertz said its Gold Plus Rewards loyalty program allows customers to skip the counter and add options and preferences to their profile in advance of their trip, among other benefits. The loyalty programs are free to join.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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