12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, October 18, 2009

Solved

THE PROBLEM: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was overcharging customers who used their TollTags to park in the express parking lots.

THE SOLUTION: D/FW acknowledged to Problem Solver in June that there was a faulty data connection that wasn’t relaying information, and workers were trying to fix it.

But it turns out that the problems with the express parking system were numerous and long-lasting.

A typical problematic scenario was that a person parked in the express lots, which now charge $12 a day, was charged the more expensive terminal rate of $17 a day.

Because these drivers were using their TollTags and the charges were automatic, most people didn’t immediately notice that they were overcharged.

According to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, trouble started for TollTag users a few months after the express lots opened in August 2007. About a year later, things were even worse.

“We are having some major issues with TollTag at the express lots and it is causing a lot of issues with guests,” wrote one airport staffer in November 2008. “Can anyone tell me where we are as far as getting this taken care of?”

As it turns out, not too far. Things were still gummed up this spring. By that time, workers were so used to issuing refunds that they cited “historical failure” as an explanation on the forms used to reimburse money.

Overall, more than 1,500 people were refunded roughly $40,000 during 2008 and through June 2009, according to an analysis of the documents supplied to Problem Solver.

Airport spokesman David Magana said that an internal audit of the same 18 months reviewed by the newspaper found some additional people who deserved refunds but had not made a request.

“It was fewer than 100,” said Magana. “We went back and settled their accounts without being asked.”

One man told the airport in his written refund request: “I was tired, paid with a credit card and did not notice I was charged $51 (3 days at $17 each) until I started to pull away from the attendant.”

For Terry Elson of Garland, it wasn’t until he was doing his business expenses that he found he was charged too much. He e-mailed the airport asking for a refund, and he made several calls. He said that he did finally get his refund, but it wasn’t easy.

“It never is when you’re trying to get money back,” said the information technology consultant.

The airport was trying to fix the bugs. During the 1 ½ years of records reviewed by the newspaper, there were 49 work-order tickets issued for various troubles with the system.

The problem most often cited was that the computerized TollTag readers in the express north lot were unable to relay information to the main toll booths. But there were other issues with the parking system as well. The airport has had to replace its fiber optic line, reader heads and the machinery that registers when a new car is in one of the express lots.

“We’ve put in software fixes, gate fixes, reader fixes,” Magana said. “Now, we also have manual intervention. There is a person at express who records plates and stamps tickets, so that way the airport can compare what is in the lot to what the system thinks is in the lot.”

All that work is finally paying off. In September, the airport did not get a request for a refund.

“By hook and by crook, we think we’ve solved it,” Magana said.

And now the airport is looking to replace its entire parking automation system, which was designed in the ’80s. This will be the second attempt to replace it. When D/FW tried before, “the vendor couldn’t get their arms around the complexity,” Magana said.

The airport will put the job out for bid again in December. Meanwhile, if there is someone who deserves a refund, Magana said to let the airport know.

“If anyone still has paperwork that shows we didn’t charge them correctly, please contact us, and we’ll gladly refund them if we need to,” he said.

Jeff Johns of Murphy, who first wrote Problem Solver about the issue, said he has noticed that the airport is now stamping his parking ticket with an “Express North” stamp.

“This was nice to see this change implemented. The only thing I would say is that the ink stamp solution was so simple, it even surprised me,” he said. “I’m pleased with the resolution and glad to see that they finally addressed this for everyone.”About this column

Each week, I hunt down experts to answer your questions or speak with authorities to get your problems fixed.

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