A VALET parking firm has been using free spaces at Southend Airport to park customers’ cars...but still charged them the full price.
An Echo investigation has revealed Southend Airport Car Park (SACP) has been taking advantage of the airport’s offer of free long-stay parking, which ends this month, by block-booking spaces.
Despite their cars being parked for free, just a stone’s throw away from the terminal, customers were not told about the move - and charged up to £20 a day.
Our reporters also discovered evidence of SACP tailgating customers’ vehicles bumper to bumper to sneak them through the airport’s car park barriers without paying.
Alastair Welch, the managing director of Southend Airport, said he was shocked by our discoveries.
He said: “Whilst we are aware of some unauthorised organisations misleading people into thinking they offer airport car parking, the behaviour we have seen recently has been shocking.
"Our priority is always for our customers and they should never be misled as they appear to have been by others here."
Airport bosses announced in January they would offer free parking to passengers for the first two months of 2013 to mark the first anniversary of the new £10million terminal.
The deal, which includes a £1 booking fee, applied to the 500-space Long-Stay Car Park 2 for customers booking through the website, southendairport.com.
SACP is one of the airport’s major rivals for passengers’ parking, offering drop-off and pick-up services at the terminal for £40 a week.
The Echo’s investigation revealed that, within days of the airport’s free parking offer being announced, dozens of bookings had been made by SACP.
However, when an undercover reporter rang to book its services, no discounts or references to the airport’s deal were offered.
SACP drivers have been observed arriving en masse to park customers’ cars in the car park and retrieve them again late at night.
When airport staff realised what was happening, they logged the cars’ registration plates on the car park entry-and-exit system, forcing the firm to pay the full price when they attempted to leave.
However, rather than doing so, SACP employees paid for one customer’s car and then tailgated others behind it to dodge the closing barrier without paying.
Various examples of the scam were also caught on film by the airport’s own CCTV cameras.
REGRETFUL bosses have held their hands up and apologised for their treatment of customers’ cars.
Lorraine Larman, financial director of Southend Airport Car Park (SACP), said she was deeply sorry if her staff members’ action had upset anybody.
However, she insisted that, until recently, she had been completely that customers’ cars had been parked in the airport’s long-stay car park.
Placing the blame on one of the firm’s managers, Ms Larman said that employee had now been sacked and she was prepared to go to any lengths to save her company’s reputation.
She said: “We have built our company on the basis of offering great service to our customers and being a family-run business.
“I was not aware that any of this was going on and, if I had been, I would have stopped it straight away.
“It was the actions of one member of staff who has now been dismissed.”
Ms Larman and her son, Louis Larman, set up SACP last year to take advantage of the rejuvenated airport’s growing number of passenger flights.
However, she said both of them had been forced away from the business in recent weeks after Mr Larman’s young son was diagnosed with cancer.
In their absence, Ms Larman claimed the staff member left in charge of the firm decided to exploit the airport’s free parking offer without her or Mr Larman’s consent.
That employee was sacked on Friday, she said.
The firm still uses its base on the Temple Farm industrial estate to park customers’ cars.
Ms Larman said the decision to use the airport’s own car park was not triggered by a lack of space at their own site.
She said: “I don’t think that was the case at all.
“I think the member of staff thought the airport was being cheeky by taking away the free drop-off lay-by, so they would do this in return.
“Of course we would not have wanted this to happen or for our customers’ cars to be treated in this way.
“If the airport would like us to pay for the spaces or do anything else to put this right, I will gladly do that.
“Our company means everything to us.”