With trains plagued by strikes and taxis astronomically expensive, valet parking at airports may seem like the best option for holidaymakers this summer. It sounds easy: you drive to the terminal, hand over your car and keys to the staff, and while they park you relax in an airport bar. Your vehicle is now someone else’s concern until you land again at the end of your vacation.
But what actually happens after you say goodbye? Possibly not what you think. Earlier this month, a couple from Leeds dropped off their car at a Meet and Greet at Manchester Airport’s Terminal 3 before flying to Spain. When they returned, Gary Thornburn and Clare Beards were greeted not only by their car, but also a charge sheet from the police, alleging that their white Golf GTI had been speeding through a 30km/h and 55km/h zone . The offense had apparently occurred two days after they had handed the car over to the airport parking company. The airport claims the car did not leave the property during the couple’s journey, its key “securely kept throughout”.
An engine mystery, then? Or just another example of an airport valet parking service turning out not to be what it seemed? Thornburn and Beards aren’t the first to come a cropper after using such a service. Miriam Salter and her boyfriend James, both 23, found themselves caught up in another airport parking nightmare last month. When they returned to Gatwick Airport at around 10pm, after two days in Paris, their car was nowhere to be found.
“We went to collect our car from one of the airport’s valet parking services and they couldn’t find our key,” says Salter, a midwife from Cambridge. “When they found it an hour later, they didn’t know where our car was.”
The couple were asked to accompany an employee from the parking company to look for their car. Thus began an endless minibus journey from one large car park to the next, starting at 11.30pm and continuing into the night.
“In the minibus there were boxes and boxes of people’s car keys, and they drove us around all these different places, up to 40 minutes away from the airport,” says Salter. “There were huge car parks in the countryside with hundreds of cars sitting on fields that had been concreted over.”
By 3am the search for their car – a VW Golf estate – was abandoned and the company took the pair to an airport hotel. It was only later that morning that the vehicle finally materialized. The firm, which put it down to a “paperwork error”, refunded them the £70 they had spent with them and offered compensation – two weeks of free parking, an offer they have no plans to accept.
In another case, Jenny*, a mother-of-two in her 40s, found one of the tires on her car had been replaced after collecting her vehicle from a valet parking company at Gatwick on 13 August. But because she and her husband didn’t notice it until they got home, it was too late for them to challenge the company about it, as they couldn’t prove anything. “We were straight off the plane from Mallorca with two tired children and it didn’t occur to us to check the tyres,” says Jenny. “It’s a cautionary tale: you really should check your car thoroughly before leaving the airport.”
Experiences like these are not rare. A quick search on the Internet reveals countless complaints from disgruntled customers who found their vehicles damaged, abused or out of gas after using airport valet parking.
In February this year, 64-year-old Alison Stitt was looking forward to driving home from Heathrow T5 having just flown in from South Africa, only to find the Audi S5 reeking of cigarette smoke with a McDonalds wrapper, a prospect for Brunel University and sores. throat medicine thrown on the front seat.
A month later in March, John Craig (39) left his £70,000 BMW 4 Series at Enigma parking services near Heathrow and returned after three weeks in Miami to find cannabis paraphernalia all over the car, three parking fines totaling £200, 250 extra miles on the clock and an empty tank.
Complaints seem to be fruitless, because unless photos are taken beforehand and agreed upon by all parties, it’s just one word against another. Nevertheless, police action has been underway in some cases. Last year Asad Malik was ordered to pay back a settlement of more than £180,000 for running a bogus airport valet scheme around Gatwick. In 2016, Sussex Police launched an investigation into his operation – London Parking Gatwick Ltd – when they found thousands of vehicles in a bog, with hundreds of their keys found in an open boot. Cars were covered in mud and backed into bushes; dashboard language had been switched from English; gas tanks had been emptied and in some cases cars were rendered useless with burnt out clutches.
So what should you do if you use valet parking at the airport, and what recourse do you have if something goes wrong? Sylvia Rook, a director at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, says you should be covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which requires anyone providing a service to do so with reasonable care and skill. “There are some real rogue companies out there,” she warns, “because valet parking at airports is a real money spinner.”
If you have proof that the parking company has damaged your car and they refuse to cover it, the next step would be to pursue a claim through small claims court, she advises. Here she suggests a number of things to do to prevent it from reaching that stage.
Nine ways to minimize the risk of airport parking
Use an airport-approved company, listed on airport websites.
Look for a Park Mark logo, which indicates that the operator belongs to the Safer Parking Scheme administered by the British Parking Association.
Check your insurance: many only cover a named driver and may not cover the person taking your car. Also check whether the parking operator has insurance.
Do not leave valuables in the car.
Conduct research online and check what previous customers have said about the company you intend to use.
Film the car when you deliver it so that you have proof that any damage you find afterwards was not there before. Also take a photo of the mileage so you can see if it has been driven in your absence.
Get a correct receipt with the name and address of the parking company.
Check the company’s website for details of where they park their vehicles.
Report any concerns immediately when you pick up the car. If you wait until later, it will be more difficult to prove that the damage was not caused on the return journey.
*Name has been changed