Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport's Valet Parking Service is a 'Moving' Experience

Joe Huguelet of Victoria recently paid $240 for valet parking at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He didn't mind paying $30 a day because he believed his car would be in an attended, heated underground garage like employees and the airport Web site said.

But that's not necessarily true. The Pioneer Press Watchdog caught up with Huguelet on his cell phone as he was driving to the airport for another trip. He was surprised to learn that during his previous trip, the garage filled up, so his Mercedes was stored in the ramp. That's not what he paid for, said Huguelet, who was intending to use valet parking again. "I have a nice car, and I want it to be protected."

There were plenty of nice cars in the ramp, makes such as Lexus, BMW and Cadillac. Customers who are away longest are the ones most likely to have their cars moved. That's because the Metropolitan Airports Commission is making room for lucrative short-timers, who pay $10 for the first valet hour.

The Watchdog talked to five people whose cars were moved without their knowledge. Their reactions ranged from irritated to furious. But Rick Decker, MAC assistant manager of parking operations, said that he has heard few complaints about the commission's new policy.

That could be because customers aren't aware of what's going on.

For the first month that cars were moved, from mid-February to mid-March, customers had no way of knowing their cars might be put in the ramp in a regular row of short-term parking that had been marked off by tape, Decker said. After that, cars were put in a fenced-in area in general parking, and in the garage, two signs went up that read: "In order to provide parking for all our valet customers, some vehicles may be temporarily relocated."

None of the five Ampco customers who talked with the Watchdog saw the signs, which stand about 5-by-30 inches and are stacked atop a larger sign for Ampco System Parking, the company that manages valet parking. The signs are positioned on either side of a set of sliding doors customers pass through after they've dropped off their cars.

"If there's a sign, it's not put in a place or done in a way that's readily remembered by anyone, or even seen, for that matter," Huguelet said. After he discovered that his car had been moved, he tried but failed to locate the signs. And none of the parking staff mentioned cars might be moved during their stay, although, Huguelet said, "I think they're obligated to tell us that."

Decker rejects that notion, however. "I think the level of notification we have right now is going to be fine."

It costs $30 a day to use airport parking valet November through April; $25 daily the rest of the year. Valet parking has taken in perhaps an extra $5,500 or so during the first couple of months of the new policy. It's not about the money, Decker said, but better customer service. The main reason people use valet parking is to drop off and pick up their cars quickly, all indoors, he said. The 400-vehicle garage fills up quickly in inclement weather; this way, MAC can accommodate an average of 35 extra cars a week, Decker says: "We've wanted to do this for years because the valet parking was full for years. It was a MAC idea."

MAC employees considered offering separate drop-off/pick-up, but they decided to try this first, Decker said. "The question has to be, what's the major point of the service? We didn't see there was an issue there."

Some customers would disagree. Even inside a padlocked fence, vehicles are less secure than in an attended underground garage, Decker acknowledges. And, in order to get them into the ramp and back, valet staff first must take cars out on a public highway, so there's a chance of an accident.

Greg Osland of Rochester is the proud owner of a silver 2005 Chrysler 300, Motor Trend Car of the Year: "I don't want 'em moving my car around."

Pete Jones of Deephaven has in the past left laptops and other costly items in his car. This past trip, he noticed he'd gotten a free car wash, "maybe to remove the evidence" of his car getting dirty on the highway and sitting in the ramp.

John Schwieters of Dellwood recently took a 10-day trip and left his Suburban with valet parking. He likes the convenience of quickly dropping off his SUV and coming back to a warm vehicle. But those aren't the only reasons. "I park at valet every time because it's underground," he said.

Because the customers' perspectives and Decker's sense of why they used the service didn't jibe, the question was kicked a few rungs up the corporate ladder to Tim Anderson, MAC deputy executive for operations.

"Our intention is to give them valet service, and not necessarily to give them underground parking," Anderson said, adding that any misinformation on the Web about the policy would be fixed. But, he noted, "We're not going to verbalize it."

Terry Ross of Elk River, who has a new Infiniti, is angry about what he calls misrepresentation. "I just paid a bill there of $162 to park it inside. I use valet parking there probably five times a month. They have never, ever said they would move my car. It's that security thing. It's why we pay twice the fee. We expect our cars to be kept inside. That's not what I am paying for. My expectation is Ampco should be reimbursing people."

Well, Decker said, one option would be to give unhappy customers some of their money back, and they can call him to talk about it. But, he added, "I'm not going to commit to doing something for them."

Are you a valet parking customer who'd like to weigh in on this issue? Rick Decker, assistant manager of parking operations at the Metropolitan Airports Commission, invites you to call him at 612-467-0460.