A couple of weeks ago, I had to travel to Europe on business as I do sometimes several times a month. On this occasion, I figured that one of the UK’s lovely regional airports would be very convenient. Needless to say, it wasn’t.
Dear Customer Relations,
I travel a lot with my work. Last year, I visited no less than 18 countries and I can assure you, travelling to 18 countries throws up all sorts of opportunities for things to go to hell in a hand cart! So, on the eve of Guy Fawkes night, when I had to go to Amsterdam for a few meetings, I thought I would minimise the hassle and use of of our charming regional airports. There, I could use the very convenient (if rather stupidly expensive) puddle jumper to land of tulips and cheap drugs.
The day started badly. I awoke to find the countryside shrouded in thick fog.
On arriving at the airport, the fog must have got into my brain because I couldn’t for the life of me remember which of the car parks I was booked into. I didn’t want to end up in Long Term 2 only to find out I was supposed to be in Long Term 3 now did I? I’d have to pay to get out of the wrong car park when I had already paid for the right one. As luck would have it, the details were in a plastic wallet on my passenger seat so it would only take half a minute to check. Literally – half a minute.
So I pulled over for 30 seconds into what I thought was a lay-by (and turned out to be a bus stop, albeit completely void of buses at the time).
How did I find out it was a bus stop? A week later I received a communication from those lovely people at Pain the Ass Vehicle Services Ltd1 (The Airport Stasi) informing me that I had been fined £100 for pulling over for a grand total of…. 31 seconds. It’s there in the photographs they kindly sent me: 31 seconds!
£100 for 31 seconds! That’s £3.23 per second! Or £193.55 per minute!! At that same rate, I could have racked up a bill of £1,000 by waiting just five minutes and ten seconds. Does that sound bloody ridiculous to you?
Of course, I had spotted the Stasi in their cosy white video van lurking in front of the terminal – which is why I made sure that I pulled safely off the road to perform my 31 second check.
What else was I supposed to do exactly?
Perhaps I should have driven up to a randomly selected car park barrier and checked there and upon discovering that I was at the wrong car park, I could have just asked the queue of vehicles behind me to all reverse back onto the airport road where the Stasi could have fined all of them £3.23 a second for being so courteous. Alternatively, I could have driven back onto the main road and parked up there for a few seconds in the dense fog. Whether I and other passing drivers would have survived the experience is a matter of speculation. Personally, I think the probability of several unnecessary deaths was quite high.
So, the only sensible option was to do exactly as I did – pull over for a few seconds to check the paperwork on my passenger seat. Having done so, I moved off immediately and entered the Long Term Car Park no.2 opposite my pausing place. Then off I went to Amsterdam for my meeting. Well, actually, I went off to sit in the airport for hours on end waiting for a plane to turn up at the fog-bound airport.
Anyway, in the circumstances, I am not inclined to pay the fine. £3.23 per second is just too much. It is £11,628 per hour; £279,072 per day; or a little over £1.9m a week for Christ’s sake! For that, I could hire no less than 29 100-foot super-yachts in Antigua (if in fact there are that many). Alternatively, I could hire a Boeing 757-300 and keep it in the air all week with enough money left over to fill it with beer and women of ill repute.
Do you really think that it is reasonable to extort money from a customer of yours at that rate?
‘Welcome to Anonymous Airport’ the sign says. Welcome? You’re taking the piss.
PS. I am delighted that all the extra money from the Stasi has enabled you to buy some tables for the security check area. Using the tables is much easier than balancing the trays on your head whilst you take out your laptop and plastic bag full of liquids.
However, the coffee in the departure lounge is still crap. Really crap.
Well, I got a flurry of replies within 24 hours. First, a standard acknowledgement of receipt from an auto-responder at the Stasi, then one from the airport asking for booking references and so on, then a very long and passionate defence of the airport policies from the Commercial Director at the Airport. As he had made such an effort, it would have been impolite not to reply:
Dear Commercial Director,
My apologies for taking so long to respond to your very detailed response to my initial email.
May I offer a few observations:
As someone who has spent over 27 hours in the air in the last 10 days alone, with another 7 flights to endure in the next 5 days, I appreciate the need for airport security more than most. I have no issue whatsoever with your need to keep airport roads clear of obstruction and, potentially, terrorists and I applaud your dedication to this end.
I confess that ‘taking the piss’ is rather unparliamentary language but it’s meaning is the same as ‘taking the Mickey’ – which means to tease. It is not insulting and no insult was intended.
Equally, I appreciate that Pain the Ass Vehicle Services Ltd are not in fact the Stasi (which was of course disbanded in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall and would have had different uniforms) though ‘Stasi’ is much easier to type repeatedly than ‘Pain the Ass Vehicle Services Ltd’. It also occurred to me that both do share a tendency to over-zealous enforcement action so the tongue-in-cheek label seemed rather appropriate.
Similarly, my use of word extortion was correct. There is in fact more than one definition.
1. The act or an instance of extorting.
2. Illegal use of one’s official position or powers to obtain property, funds, or patronage.
3. An excessive or exorbitant charge.
4. Something extorted.
Needless to say, definition number 3 – ‘an excessive or exorbitant charge’ – was the one I was using – not number 2 as you suggest.
Which rather brings us to the point at issue.
I do not believe that it can be reasonable to charge me at a rate high enough to hire 29 100-foot luxury yachts in Antigua (and I’m not making that up, I did my research first) for deciding that pulling over for half a minute was the safest option open to me when I needed to check my car park booking.
What would have been reasonable is for Mr. Stasi, sorry, Mr. Pain-the-Ass-Vehicle-Services-Limited, to resist the performance-bonus-fuelled urge to prosecute because I was only there for 31 seconds and then to have stepped out of his cosy video van into the freezing fog to have ‘a word in my ear’ as I walked past him towards the terminal. Something along the lines of “Now listen here sonny, we’ve let you off this time because you were only there for 31 seconds but if you do that again we’ll fine you enough to hire a fleet of luxury yachts in Antigua”.
That would have done the trick for sure.
If you feel unable to withdraw the Parking Charge Notice, then might I suggest a compromise? How about you reduce the rate from 29 luxury 100-foot yachts to just 10? Call it thirty quid instead of a hundred.
Now that would be fair.
PS. I have sent all the required serial/reference numbers in a separate email.
PPS. The news about the coffee sounds awfully promising. Please don’t do a deal with Starbucks. Costa by all means but not Starbucks I beg you.
Well it wasn’t long before the Commercial Director responded again. He had of course seen the letter on Dear Customer Relations and was not best pleased about this blog’s imbalance – notably my failure to explain that the airport is obliged to enforce the Airport Act 1986, section 63 onwards etc etc and my failure to point out that I was being made £100 poorer in the interests of aviation safety, not out of any desire to prevent me from hiring luxury Caribbean yachts.
However, he did explain that he had taken the trouble to retrieve and watch the video of my misdemeanour and was able to inform me that I had in fact been at the bus stop for rather longer than the 31 seconds so I still had to pay the fine. However, I would be allowed a bit of free parking which could be enjoyed at any time in the next two years so I would get my money back eventually as long as I continued to use the airport (which was very sporting of him in the circumstances).2
So I replied, naturally:
Dear Commercial Director,
Thank you for your email. 52 seconds! That does surprise me.
Well, that changes everything.
As the charges are now only equivalent to 17 100-foot Antiguan superyachts as opposed to the original 29, I think I shall accept your kind offer and pay the ransom, sorry, fine.
I’m about to jump on another long haul flight and do not set foot in the UK again until next weekend so if you would be kind enough to ask those nice folks at Pain the Ass Vehicle Services Limited to bear with me for another week or so, I will send them a lovely crisp cheque.
Do I have to pay the full £100 or is the reduced figure of £60 still available because I appealed?
He let me off with the reduced figure of £60. Jolly decent of him.
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