Free Parking Glitch Costs Sea-Tac Airport $400,000

Dec 11, 2012

Sea-Tac International Airport
Sea-Tac International Airport
Credit John Ryan

If you study your credit card bills closely, you might have figured this one out already. If not, the Port of Seattle may have a little holiday gift for you.

Sea-Tac International Airport, run by the Port of Seattle, has given away nearly $400,000 in unintentionally free parking this year. That news comes courtesy of the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

Auditors say a malfunctioning credit card machine has allowed about 11,000 cars to park free this year in the airport parking garage. Drivers may not have noticed until now, since their parking-ticket receipts said their credit cards had been charged.

Sea-Tac Airport has one of the world’s largest parking garages. Automatic ticket machines in some of its 14 exit lanes let drivers swipe their credit cards then spit out their tickets as receipts. That’s why the machines have an odd nickname: “ticket spitters.”

One ticket spitter failed to spit out charges to credit card companies. That saved each lucky driver an average of $37.

“We are actually still trying to figure out what that problem was,” said Sea-Tac Airport spokesman Perry Cooper. He said a business traveler trying to reconcile receipts and credit card bills tipped the airport off to the problem.

“From a consumer standpoint, it was a little bit of a benefit," Cooper said. "From our standpoint, obviously it’s a loss. It’s a pretty minor loss; it’s less than 1 percent of what we bring in each year, which is $49 million.”

“It’s difficult to tell the public that $400,000 is a small potato,” said Brian Sonntag, now in his 20th year, and his last month, as state auditor. “It’s public money. It still matters.”

According to the state audit, the airport didn’t properly test the ticket spitters when they were installed. Said Sonntag:

In our perspective, that’s kind of common sense, that’s routine, to check your systems, to make sure that they are working, rather than wait for a problem like this to arise. Then you’ve got to change the whole thing, make corrections, and in the meantime, you’ve lost almost half a million dollars of public money.

The total amount lost at the parking garage is unknown. The Port of Seattle’s internal investigation only estimated how much was lost this year. The ticket spitters were installed 13 years ago.

Sea-Tac Airport has hired an outside auditing firm to find out what went wrong with the one automated toll booth and when the problems began.

Cooper said the airport is looking into whether it can recover the losses from the ticket spitters’ German manufacturer, Scheidt & Bachmann, and will “most likely” not attempt to collect from the drivers who got off with unpaid fees.

Cooper said the airport has replaced the malfunctioning ticket spitter with a newer machine by Scheidt & Bachmann. But that one’s not working right, either.

Airport employees are resorting to manually generating credit-card reports. That means no drivers are getting off free any more, no matter what lane they pick at the parking-garage exit.