Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

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The Independent Travel

Taking back a rental car can be fraught. You are driving a strange vehicle in unfamiliar surroundings, and feeling the pressure of an imminent deadline such as a plane to catch. If you have rented the car on the usual "out full, back full" basis, there is the added stress of finding a petrol station and (something that defeated me on a one-day rental in Dallas) locating the lever that opens the fuel-tank cap. Should you fail to replenish the vehicle to the brim, or at least until the needle shows "Full", you are charged a price-per-litre of an order that you had previously associated with vintage champagne. Meanwhile, the minutes tick by. Any moment now the usual one-hour grace period that rental companies allow will expire – rendering you liable for a punitive surcharge.

Taking back a rental car can be fraught. You are driving a strange vehicle in unfamiliar surroundings, and feeling the pressure of an imminent deadline such as a plane to catch. If you have rented the car on the usual "out full, back full" basis, there is the added stress of finding a petrol station and (something that defeated me on a one-day rental in Dallas) locating the lever that opens the fuel-tank cap. Should you fail to replenish the vehicle to the brim, or at least until the needle shows "Full", you are charged a price-per-litre of an order that you had previously associated with vintage champagne. Meanwhile, the minutes tick by. Any moment now the usual one-hour grace period that rental companies allow will expire – rendering you liable for a punitive surcharge.

Some customers find the experience so debilitating that they never quite get round to bringing the car back. Who knows, perhaps they may have suffered the odd minor dent or fresh scratch that a sharp-eyed check-in rep will spot, causing a lot of expensive grief.

Car hire companies are cagey about the number of vehicles that are taken on a permanent one-way rental, but across the industry about one in 100 cars is never seen again. The industry has struggled with this level of loss for decades, despite checks on credit cards and driving licences. But easyCar – the vehicle rental company that brought you rentals by the hour and offers a bribe if you are prepared to clean out the car – reckons it may have a solution.

LM51 RWK, where are you now? This grey Mercedes A-Class, with barely a mile on the clock, was due back at the easyCar rental depot in Edgware Road, central London, one month and one day ago. The person who hired the car has already run up an overdue bill that puts library fines in the shade: £2,400, and rising at £75 per day.

The terrestrial transport venture known as easyCar was created by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet. Whether in the air or on the road, Stelios specialises in doing things differently from existing operators. The bright billionaire created "Wanted" posters in cyberspace to highlight the sort of people who fall in love with their rental car and are unwilling to surrender it when due. So the easyCar website now sports an "overdue corner" devoted to those of a forgetful nature.

Anyone the company deems to be more than 15 days late in returning the car is likely to appear in this Hall of Fame. It is a kind of online Crimewatch. A request for help is issued to the viewing public: "easyCar would be most grateful of any information as to the whereabouts of our overdue cars". Informers are urged to e-mail overdue@easycar.com.

You might imagine this to be as effective, say, as asking air travellers who have found themselves upgraded if they would kindly pay the difference in fares once the journey is over.

Stelios has a secret weapon, though: everyone who wants to rent a car from him has to agree to have their picture taken. Hirers are invited to smile at a webcam that is handily placed at the counter of each branch. In the normal run of things, the records are wiped once the car is safely returned. But those taken from people who have not got around to dropping the car back are likely to appear on the website.

Above a picture of Geoffrey McVey, who easyCar says was last seen in the company of LM51 RWK, is a request: "If you know any of the people pictured below please ask them to contact easyCar immediately".

"This easyCar initiative is designed both as a deterrent and as an attempt to retrieve our cars," says a spokesman for easyCar. "Managing our inventory correctly means we can keep the cost of car hire low for everyone. People who do not return impact on our ability to do this," he adds with a touch of understatement.

Surely, though, easyCar is in possession of more tangible mementoes than just a picture of its long-lost customer? To rent any car, you are normally obliged to give a telephone contact and a credit card before driving away, and easyCar is even tougher, demanding "an original bank statement or utility bill (excluding mobile phone bills) of no more than three months".

Credit limits are easily reached, though, and "the telephone number and e-mail address provided for this customer were unobtainable", explains the company. "We have not received a response to several letters that have been sent to the address provided." One omission from the website: no reward is promised to people who help easyCar "manage its inventory".

Whatever next in this erosion of privacy? Hotels might start demanding photographs of guests and "name and shame" anyone who walks off with a bathrobe or tries the old hair lacquer trick to reseal bottles from the minibar (don't ask). And airlines may insist that your picture is taken at check-in so that if you fail to get to the gate in time, agents can set off around the terminal to drag you out of duty-free.

The sign of a good house journal is openness: being prepared to discuss the success of competitors, to tackle contentious issues and to confront the organisation's shortcomings. British Airways News scores highly, making it one of the UK's most plausible house journals. Page 3 of a recent issue carries a large picture of a protester carrying placards reading "No third runway", even though the airline is desperate for Heathrow to expand as soon as possible.

On another page, the airline's staff find the latest results from easyJet – doubling passenger numbers and boosting load factor, are printed, making BA's slump look even gloomier.

By page 12, employees – and shareholders – may find themselves in the same position as Mikhail Gorbachev's former colleagues in the Politburi: wondering if a little less glasnost might be appropriate. BA has just picked up a shelf-load of Business Traveller awards. Yet not all the contributors to the Talking Point column are overjoyed. One insider comments, "We're millions in debt, the share value is sinking and morale has never been lower."

That would be bad enough coming from a long-suffering cleaner or baggage handler. But the comment is signed "Jim, Strategy and Planning".

Fifty-three travelling days to Christmas, and Adam Sykes is already wearied by the prospect of the celebrations. "We should have Christmas only once every four years" he writes, and wonders where he could most effectively avoid the festivities that are ever more tenuously linked to the birth of Christ. The task is tougher than you might think; I spent one 25 December in Thailand, where the predominantly Buddhist community demonstrated that they knew more words to more carols than I did.

A few obvious targets spring to mind for those who, unlike the singer Roy Wood, wish it could be Christmas on no days at all. In the Islamic world, Libya is perhaps the most robustly insulated against the trappings of Christianity. Further east, the population in large parts of India and China haven't heard of Noddy Holder, and don't even know all the lyrics to Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. Mr Sykes would welcome any suggestions for the optimum destination where Mistletoe and Wine – the concept, as well as the dismal Cliff Richard song – are unknown.

The future of business travel was discussed last weekend, aboard the good ship Oriana at anchor in the Solent. Several hundred corporate travel managers gathered to ponder, prophesise and condemn the shambles that is Britain's rail network. (The railways struck back when the train taking many delegates from Southampton to London arrived two hours late.)

It so happens that the ex-Disney man, PY Gerbeau, gave the keynote address at the event. M. Gerbeau was brought in to rescue the Dome after the government made such a hash of it. What would he do to cure the malaise that afflicts trains in the UK? Even though M. Gerbeau hails from a country that has a superb high-speed rail network (Eurostar's recent problems aside), he does not believe that re-nationalisation is the solution: "No politician should get involved in running a business", he says. "The only enterprises where governments have ever been successful are public executions."

Capital punishment: now that might persuade people to bring their cars back.

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