Ever tried to get your Retail Export Scheme form stamped at Luton Airport?
At Heathrow it’s easy. Go through passport control, turn right into the Customs and Excise office, get your form stamped. You’d think Luton would be the same, wouldn’t you? No, the office is on the land side of passport control. The instructions are on the airside of passport control. Now, who’s bright idea was that?
On a recent trip to the UK I had some purchases to reclaim the VAT on. I arrived an hour earlier than normal at the airport. I waited ten minutes at the EasyJet desk to ask about the procedure for carriage of a musical instrument – I had been on their website, read their salesy FAQ, sent them an email, hunted fruitlessly for a telephone number to make the simple enquiry on – because nowhere did it say whether the musical instrument would be classed as cabin luggage in addition to my normal hand luggage, or instead of it.
After getting the answer I wanted (musical instruments are extras) I queued yet again to check in. This done I rushed up to passport control. Where I waited for an X Ray machine. They had a lot in operation, but they just seemed to take ages. Still, I got through with plenty of time until my flight. Or so I thought…
I asked the friendly security bloke where the VAT office was, he pointed me to a blue box on the wall. I ran over to it, and read the instructions. There was an upper limit of how much I could reclaim using this box. For items over this limit I had to apply to the office downstairs – on the landside of passport control. Nice of them to put the notice here I thought. Normally there are signs all over the place saying “Once through these doors, there can be no return” or words to that effect. Not quite the “Abandon hope, all who enter here” type of message, but on top of the normal pre-flight stress a firm instruction, nonetheless.
I asked the security man what I should do. They were very helpful. They told me to go downstairs again.
Off I went, downstairs, through the terminal as fast as I could go. Eventually I found the VAT office. Unmanned. But there was a telephone I could use if their bell summoned nobody. It didn’t, so I picked up the phone. After a pause, a confused voice answered at the other end “Stansted Customs” he said. He wasn’t as confused as me though. I said so. “Ahh,” he said knowingly. “they must have all gone home.”
Nice man. He told me I should have put my form in the blue box – even if it was for something in excess of the amount on the instruction board on the airside of passport control. “We do it at Stansted all the time.” he said phlegmatically. I really had no choice but to do the same.
Off I went, as fast as my tired old, unfit legs would carry me. Up the escalator, Through the doors of no return, but this time I short-cutted the queue as they had told me to the last time I saw the friendly security people. They remembered me like a lost brother with open arms. That was so they could scan me again. Well, not them, the X-Ray machine.
Laptop out of bag. Bag out of bag. Coat off. X-Ray number two. Coat on. Bag into bag. Laptop into bag.
Check monitor to see progress of flight. Gate 4. Run to get water from newsagents. Run back to monitor. Aaarrgh! “Boarding” it said matter-of-factly, as it changed to “Last Call”. I ran. Haven’t done that for years. At least Gate 4 is nearby, I thought naively.
Turns out, it’s one of the furthest gates to get to. By the time I got there, I could hardly breath, my legs were in agony, I was limping. I had tried my hardest, but I’m not the sylth-like figure I used to be. I turned a corner and hurried downstairs. Gate 4 was empty. No people. No phone. No message. No screen. No information at all. Had I come to the wrong place?
The Ryannair people said I should try gates 15/16, so I rushed around, but there was nothing that could be done. I had missed the flight by trying to obey all the rules. If I had just chanced it, dropped my VAT reclaim form into the box I would have had no problems, I would have made the flight. If there had been a VAT notice at the top of the escalators I would have been able to miss out the first trip through passport control and would have made the flight. If there had been some means for EasyJet staff at Gate 4 to know I was actually on my way, I would have made the flight. If there had been a monitor or speakers in the corridors on the way to Gate 4 at least I would have known they had left without me, would’ve stopped hurrying and saved myself the knee injury I eventually suffered by rushing.
So, I had to find a hotel at short notice (Thank you, Holiday Inn) and then repeat the whole process at 7am the next day. Total Cost: £115. Thank you Luton Airport. On top of that, I had three X-Rays in 13 hours – probably not too good for my long-term health either.
So, next time you visit Luton Airport, don’t expect logic. Next time you want to reclaim VAT,
think very carefully. And next time you think EasyJet is a cheap airline – think again!