Take-off: The Independent’s revelation of an airport VAT rip-off has sparked public fury - consumers should get their own back


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The Independent Online

It always seemed curious. Holidaymakers are used to obeying each and every command, from the moment they enter an airport to when they pass through customs at the other end. Belts are removed, bags ransacked without a peep of objection. But why, when one wants to pick up a copy of The Independent and a packet of gum, does the WH Smith cashier need to see a boarding pass? What can the terrorists have done now?

Truth is, as this newspaper first revealed, the request has nothing to do with security. It is, instead, a profit-boosting ruse. If a traveller is flying to a destination within the European Union, airport retailers must pass to the Government the 20 per cent VAT they receive on every item bought in store. If that traveller is leaving the EU, however, the 20 per cent remains in the tills. In effect, customers end up paying tax not to the Government but to the likes of Dixons, Boots and ’Smiths – which stash this legal windfall and neglect to pass the savings on to consumers.

The Independent’s reporting has already led to protests beyond passport control. We encourage more polite insurrection. It is the airport’s aura of conformity that retailers have been exploiting. Now is the time to speak up, push back, and stop corporations siphoning off undeserved earnings from a holiday budget.

Should enough customers refuse to show their boarding passes, stores – unable to note who is to leave the EU and who is to stay within its borders – will either have to pass on all the VAT they receive, drop their prices, or find some way to refund shoppers. A win for the Treasury, or the long-duped consumer. Exorbitant rents have been flagged up as a possible explanation for this underhand practice. Though exact figures are hard to come by, Heathrow charges stores a premium for the privilege of selling to the captive market of the departure lounge.

It would be easier to sympathise were it not for the startling mark-up with which the stores typically respond. The Travelsupermarket website found 30 “travel-sized” toiletries that were more than twice as expensive in airports, per millilitre, as they were on the high street. While the high street withers, in fact, retailers increasingly compete for entry to the traveller’s limbo: airport shopping has expanded by 12 per cent since 2009. Clearly, hair shirts will not be found in Gatwick in the near future.

People power ought to be sufficient, in this case, to put a stop to the stores’ dodgy dealing. They appear cowed by the level of public fury. Where once employees were given spurious reasons to ask for a customer’s boarding pass – a “survey” was the excuse at one Manchester WH Smith –representatives from Boots and Dixons have suggested they will inform their staff that no passenger is formally required to dig through a bag at their behest.

Still, the threat of state intervention would not go amiss. The Government could close the loophole and make it illegal for airport stores to pump up their bottom line with money meant, perhaps, for a school or hospital. In the meantime, if asked for a boarding pass when all you want is a universal adaptor – just say “no”.