IS it news to YOU that an airline boarding pass is no longer needed to purchase a newspaper or a bottle of water at WH Smith airport stores? If it is then you read it here first!
Sitting in the departure lounge at Newcastle Airport waiting for our flight to Oslo, Mrs B decided she needed her Sudoku ‘fix’ for the journey and set off to the newsagent to buy a 40p newspaper.
“Be a love and buy me some travel sweets and a tube of Steradent capsules from Boots while you’re there, would you?” I asked, feigning hearing loss at her caustic reminder that 68 years of the former was what caused the need for the latter.
She returned, newspaper-less, with this tale of woe:
I bought your sweets and denture cleaner and a couple of other items from Boots and spent £6 with no problem. But when I went to WH Smith to buy a 40p newspaper it all went pear-shaped.
There was no sales desk, only a self service checkout. The machine wouldn’t complete the transaction without my boarding pass. Irritating, but I complied. The scanner could not read it so I pressed the buser for assistance.
Minutes passed, during which I pressed the buzzer twice more. Still, no one came. So I dumped the paper and started to leave, whereupon I noticed the ‘help’ assistant on the telephone. She didn’t look up.
Finally, I complained loudly to a shelf stacker as I left she said: “Oh, I could have helped you.” Great! So why did no one answer the buzzer?
So I wrote an email to WH Smith’s PR department after failing to find anyone to whom I could email a complaint from my cruising altitude while sitting next to a woman irritated beyond belief by her lack of a Sudoku challenge.
WHY, I demanded, does WH Smith requine a boarding pass for a 40p non-duty free purchase?
WHY is there no alternative manned till?
WHY is an assistant’s telephone call more important than a customer’s purchase?
Naturally, I copied in friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook (the best way to put errant companies on the spot, in my experience) and long before WHS got back to me I received a host of replies from sore fellow travellers.
My columnist colleague Keith Hann (of this ilk) thundered on Facebook: “WH Smith are the Trinity Mirror of retailing: a bunch of customer-hating tossers obsessed with keeping their profits moving forward by cutting staff numbers and failing to invest in their stores. I have frequently abandoned purchases because of their insistence that I must use an automated till, even when there are staff around who could serve customers if they were permitted to do so.”
Ouch! Two unfavourited companies badmouthed in one fell swipe. Good going, Mister Grumpy!
Over on Twitter, @grassoparnassus tweeted: “Are they still trying that scam? Shame on them.” And my fellow Twit Michael Chowdhury explained the alleged scam thus: “They want to pocket your VAT. Scamming gits. They know it belongs to you!”
Now I was on the real trail; a little judicious Googling produced a column published in the Independent (of Blessed Print Media Memory) a year ago, headlined ‘Airport VAT: How I unearthed the great boarding pass scam – and led the charge to end it‘ and written much better than I could by fellow journalist Oliver Wright.
It is a scene repeated thousands of times a day at airports up and down the country.
Travel bag over your arm, carrier bag in one hand and the toothpaste, suncream and plug adaptor you’ve forgotten to pack balanced precariously in the other. You get to the checkout, put your goods on the counter and take out your card to pay.
The sales assistant looks at you somewhat contemptuously. “Have you got your boarding card?” she says – not as question, but as a weary command.You put down your carrier, rummage around in the side pocket of your bag, pull out a crumpled piece of paper and hand it over compliantly. It’s far from the worst thing in the world but it makes the whole experience of travelling by air just one notch more unpleasant.
The question that has always perplexed me is: why? Over the past few years, every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve made a mental note that when I get back I’ll investigate. And every year, by the time I get home I’ve forgotten about it.
But this year was different. I did remember, and on a quiet day in the office I decided to try to unravel what was going on.
I ruled out security, on the grounds that it made no sense at all, and phoned up Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ask them if they knew why passengers had to present their boarding cards at the checkout in airports.
A few days later they got back to me. There was no legal reason, they said. But airport stores could claim back the VAT on purchases made by people flying out of the EU – as long as they had the evidence in the form of a scanned boarding card.
On the face of it, that seemed pretty outrageous to me. We, the passengers, were not getting the savings: the stores concerned admitted to me that they charged the same at the airport as on the high street. But here they were, making millions of pounds a year by inconveniencing us and taking the 20 per cent VAT saving for themselves.
Horrified, The Independent put the great VAT scam on its front page, kicking off a campaign of gentle civil disobedience. People queued at airports to buy the paper then refused to hand over their boarding card to pay.for it.
As one traveller remarked on Twitter: “At Heathrow, a joy to watch old men loudly refuse to show their boarding cards. Truly, our own Arab Spring.”
After a week of this Twitter/Facebook outrage leading to calls in the House for an end to the scam, the story spread to the Daily Mail’s ‘String ’em Up!’ Correspondent followed by a Daily Telegraph online poll of its readers and a dose of balanced boredom from the BBC. The first retailer caved in: Boots announced it would end the invidious practice. Good for them!
That left airport giants WHSmith and Dixons attempting to hold out. But resistance was futile. Now we ALL know that you don’t need a boarding card to buy at WH Smiths. This was my reply from the stationery and book selling store:
Hi David, Sorry to hear of your wife’s experience in our Newcastle Airport store. There should be a member of staff free to assist customers if they require it whilst using the self service tills, AND A BOARDING PASS IS NOT REQUIRED but does need a member of staff’s assistance to carry on with the purchase. We will pass on the details of your complaint to our Store Manager to address. We hope you and your wife’s next visit to one of our stores is more enjoyable.
So, if they ask, say NO!