The Great Scanning Scam

Airports can be fairly routine affairs, and these days Heathrow Terminal 5 is starting to lose its initial charm of a glistening, glass encased building of wonder. The once highly personal, attentive service of national airlines like British Airways has gone – replaced by global automation. The latest layer of service to go is bag drop. Today, you’re trusted to scan your own boarding pass and print off the long ribbon like label – and then left to work out exactly how to wrap it correctly around your suitcase so that it ends up in the same destination as you.

Sod’s law, of course, dictates that the self scanner doesn’t work for me. I feel like an awkward customer at the supermarket, waiting for assistance. “These machines have a mind and mood of their own,” smiles the BA attendant, unsure as to why the computer has said no. In these situations, you’re always left nervously wondering what crime the system thinks you’ve commited. But the real scandal is left for the other side of security.

In 2015 The Independent newspaper uncovered a scam being run by airport retailers whic had gone unnoticed for years. Passengers had almost always been asked to show their boarding cards when making purchases airside, and nobody had asked why. It turned out that the retailers were quietly logging details to claim back VAT from those travelling to non EU destinations, via HM Revnue and Customs. What’s more, those savings weren’t being passed on to the customers. A small outcry followed and many retailers ended the practice.

But it’s back, and this time it’s by stealth.

Because, in this world of automation, some stores have introduced self-service checkouts. And guess what, some are demanding that passengers scan their boarding cards before payment is taken. The message on the WH Smith screen reads “If you are unable to scan your boarding pass please ask for assistance”. Faced with the choice of waiting ten minutes or getting out of the store, what are most people likely to do?  

In 2015, WH Smith said it would be unworkable for its outlets to have two sets of prices for EU and non EU customers. Yet other retailers backed down. Of course all of this may well be irrelevant after Brexit. Nonetheless, I’ve contacted Simon Calder, the Travel Editor at The Independent, to see if there’s a follow on story.

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