Stung by bad publicity after a Nov. 10 technology foul-up penned travelers at the parking exits for half an hour, Raleigh-Durham International Airport officials promised this month to treat people better next time.
“We want our customers to know they can get out and get home,” Michael Landguth, the airport president and CEO, said in an interview. “We didn’t do a good job from a customer standpoint, and we’re learning a lot from that.”
RDU acknowledged in November, after a traveler complained to The News & Observer, that 124 drivers had been held at the exits on a Tuesday evening while technicians struggled to fix “a disruption of service with our credit-card processing system.”
Parking is the publicly owned airport’s biggest moneymaker, accounting for $44 million of this year’s $110 million operating budget.
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Refusing that night to let anybody drive off without paying, airport workers made customers wait until the exit payment machines were again able to handle their credit cards.
“Our focus was based on technical troubleshooting,” Chuck McFall, RDU’s chief revenue officer, said last week in a report to the airport authority board. “We were so focused on the system that we didn’t pay proper attention to the customer.”
That won’t happen again, McFall said. He outlined a string of measures to keep cars moving the next time there’s a glitch with the payment system.
McCall told board members only about the Nov. 10 outage, but airport documents show there have been numerous episodes over the past two years. Machines reject credit cards or hold them, or return them without providing receipts. Sometimes dozens of cars are delayed by 30 minutes or more.
The employees seemed to be only concerned with getting my payment for parking, no matter if it took all night. I cannot remember ever being treated so poorly.
Joseph Robbins of Chapel Hill, detained for an hour at parking exit
Long waits at the exit
“The employees seemed to be only concerned with getting my payment for parking, no matter if it took all night,” Joseph Robbins of Chapel Hill, who spent an hour in line at an exit gate on Sept. 19, 2014, said in an interview. “I cannot remember ever being treated so poorly.”
That same night, John Costello of Raleigh tried to pay his $70 parking fee at five different machines. He discovered later that his bank account had been charged $350. RDU refunded the overpayment, but he was still unhappy.
“Normally I would not be this irritated by a mistake such as this,” Costello said in a complaint filed with RDU. “But the woman working at the booth that night was also exceptionally rude and dismissive.”
To reduce staffing needs at the exit gates – and to speed the flow of vehicles leaving the garage and parking lots – RDU switched in 2003 to a system that encourages drivers to pay for parking as they walk out of the terminal, with cash or credit cards.
When the payment is inserted in the walk-up machine or a similar device at the gate, the transaction is routed through an Internet link to a remote credit-card processing center. It usually takes about seven seconds, McFall said.
RDU officials had to take the payment system offline to get traffic moving again Nov. 10. Each payment machine has enough computer memory to record its own transactions for a day or two, and they can be uploaded later to the Internet processing center. The offline mode works as a backup solution, McFall said.
Airport workers waited 31 minutes after the payment system began slowing down Nov. 10 – and 14 minutes after it had stopped completely, McFall said – before they switched to the offline mode so drivers could pay for their parking.
Landguth said even a few minutes’ delay is unacceptable.
People come from all over the world, and when they get here, they expect to be able to get out.
Michael Landguth, RDU airport president and CEO
“The customer should never experience any of this,” Landguth, the airport president and CEO, told RDU board members. “That is my expectation regarding our staff and regarding our system. It has got to be that reliable. I don’t want to talk about five minutes. People come from all over the world, and when they get here, they expect to be able to get out.”
124 cars worth $5,000
Next time there’s a problem, McFall said, the parking system will switch to the offline mode quickly.
If new software doesn’t make the change automatically, this duty will fall to parking supervisors who should see green monitor lights turn to red. Airport managers will receive urgent calls, day or night, in an automated communication system set up for natural disasters and other emergencies.
Somebody will hit the “kill switch,” McFall said.
But RDU officials do not plan to open the exit gates without collecting all those parking dollars first.
“We looked at that,” McFall told board member Larry Zucchino of Raleigh. “And you look at the impact: 124 cars is about $5,000 in revenue, as we look at our averages. What the kill switch will do for us, it will negate us having to raise those gates. If we start seeing (technical problems), we’ll push the button.”
Zucchino worried about the prospect of some other unexpected problem that would justify raising the exit gates and sacrificing the money.
“You need to have some threshold where we can lose $5,000, but we’re not in the papers, and we don’t have that kind of (public relations) issue,” Zucchino told McFall. “It’s really not about that $5,000. It’s a question of when do we take care of the customer and let them go through.”
The board discussion came just one day after RDU was ranked among the nation’s best in a J.D. Power survey of airport customer satisfaction. Dickie Thompson of Raleigh, the board chairman, said RDU should send a letter of apology to the 124 travelers who were trapped at the exit gates in November.
“And I’d be glad to sign the thing,” Thompson said.