TAMPA — Amid months of SunPass breakdowns at Tampa International Airport parking garages, the airport’s vice president of operations John Tiliacos tried to get the company behind the toll system on the phone.

He waited on hold with Conduent for almost an hour.

“They just get worse and worse,” Tiliacos wrote in a February email after the call.

Airport parking manager Karl Martin replied: “I agree!!!!!!!!”

Ever since New Jersey-based Conduent took over Florida’s tolling system last year, motorists around the state have complained of overbilling and long customer service wait times.

State transportation officials say it has mostly been fixed. But problems at Florida airports indicate otherwise.

Malfunctions and server outages still cause backups in parking garages. Customers are sometimes charged double or more. One Florida airport acknowledged losing money and Orlando’s airport said it is owed $1 million.

The problems were so bad that Tampa International Airport recently considered shutting down SunPass lanes indefinitely.

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What is supposed to be a seamless system to exit airport parking lots without reaching for a wallet has often created headaches for customers and airport staff.

“It causes serious disruption,” said Mike Simmons, director of finance and administration at Palm Beach International Airport. “All the airports around the state are getting impatient because we’re the ones that bear the brunt.”

Perhaps no airport provides better insight into SunPass’ problems than Tampa International, where officials are hyper-protective of its high customer satisfaction ratings. Thousands of internal airport emails reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times show airport officials have been exasperated by a problem largely out of their hands.

After the SunPass system went down — again — on May 12, familiar complaints of long delays to exit Tampa International Airport parking lots rolled in through email and social media.

“SunPass is tarnishing an otherwise world-class airport experience,” one customer wrote the airport.

Tiliacos fired off an email to his counterpart Mark Cantelli at Conduent. The Tampa airport had been “plagued with a myriad of SunPass issues for more than a year now,” he said, and he demanded accountability.

A week later, unsatisfied by the company’s response, Tiliacos wrote Cantelli again. This time, it came with a warning: “We will have no choice but to turn the SunPass system off and advise our customers, and yours, why we’re turning it off.”

Conduent declined multiple requests for comment for this story. Reached by phone, Cantelli, the company’s vice president, told a Times reporter to contact Neil Franz, Conduent’s spokesperson. Franz referred the Times to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, the Department of Transportation entity that oversees state toll roads.

In a statement, Transportation Department spokeswoman Ann Howard didn’t say why the state’s airports have been having so many problems with SunPass, or how the department is holding Conduent accountable.

Howard said the department is working with Tampa International Airport on improvements to the system, which include “system segregation, fail-safe processes and optimization for SunPass parking transactions.”

“The Department understands the frustration experienced by customers during the implementation of upgrades to the SunPass system,” Howard wrote.

Conduent claims it is working on a fix. Within eight months, the company plans to put the airports on a different operating system, according to conversations with Conduent described in Tampa airport emails.

If seen through, it would mean the airports — led by powerful executives and governed by boards full of politicians and well-connected appointees of the governor — will be on a separate system while the average motorist remains on the existing one.

Tiliacos told the Times last week that SunPass reliability has recently improved and he credited state transportation officials for getting Conduent’s attention.

The problems at Florida’s airports are yet another blight on Conduent, the politically-connected company that won an estimated $600 million SunPass contract under a cloud of suspicion in 2015.

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Conduent’s competitors were cheaper and had higher bid scores. But transportation officials lowered the minimum bid requirements and deviated from their own policies to award the company the job.

From the moment Conduent took over processing SunPass tolls and customer service calls last year, the headaches for motorists, transportation officials and lawmakers began.

Conduent’s software was “completely overwhelmed” by the number of cars and tolls it had to process, transportation officials said. Drivers were overcharged and saw their toll bills arrive months late, and some had to be refunded after their bank accounts were overdrafted.

Florida’s Department of Transportation has fined Conduent $8.3 million since it took over processing SunPass tolls on June 1 last year. And transportation officials say the problems on Florida’s toll roads are mostly gone.

“Airports had nothing to do with the decision of bringing Conduent into the shoes of the Turnpike Authority,” said Simmons at the Palm Beach airport. “Nobody asked us.”

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Customers can pay with SunPass to park at airports in Tampa, Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale as well as the Miami Dolphins stadium. Conduent receives about 14 cents for every parking transaction at Tampa International, where SunPass lanes were first introduced in 2008.

“When it works, it’s great,” Simmons said.

When it doesn’t, however, airport officials found Conduent unresponsive. Emails showed Tampa airport officials struggling to arrange meetings with the company to fix systemic problems. Conduent’s service provider “is often difficult to reach” during SunPass outages at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said Arlene Satchell, spokesperson for Broward County Aviation Authority.

Just like on Florida’s toll roads, problems at the airports began soon after Conduent took over in 2018. The company called for a week-long shut down of SunPass as it migrated everything to its system. The morning it was supposed to go back online, SunPass remained down and wasn’t restored until late afternoon, according to emails. Things did not improve from there.

For weeks, customers at Tampa International Airport reported they were double billed — charged by SunPass even though the transponder was declined.

After a month, SunPass announced the evening of July 3 that toll transactions would finally appear on its website. The toll system was declared fully operational, including at airports.

The next day, SunPass’ website went down. It was the Fourth of July 2018 and Tiliacos couldn’t find anyone to help.

“Your team sent an email out today, of all days, indicating if you’re having an issue call our 888 number,” Tiliacos wrote to Conduent. “Well, I did, and your offices are closed. Not good!”

Over the next year, SunPass would periodically go down statewide. Sometimes, the issue was speed: it would take 60 seconds or more to process a transaction that was supposed to be instantaneous. Other times, the system was out entirely across the state, leaving airports scrambling to close down SunPass lanes and manage the fallout.

That included trying to help customers get refunds. One customer, for example, should have been charged $90 for a five-day stay in the garage.

But because he left the airport when the SunPass system was down, it didn’t charge him — until the next time he went to the airport, a month later. It took the man nearly two months of dealing with SunPass to get his $486 refund, emails show.

One internal six-month study at Tampa International found SunPass problems outpaced all other parking technology incidents. Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said it has averaged three SunPass breakdowns a month.

“With SunPass the way it is at the moment, it is almost causing us more hassle than it is worth!” Tampa airport director of parking Roop Johal wrote in a January email.

When SunPass is down, Miami airport is sometimes forced to let cars through without paying. Chin could not quantify the lost revenue, but said that SunPass accounts for about 20 percent of all parking transactions.

Orlando airport is still waiting to collect more than $1 million in SunPass parking fees, airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.

She said the delays started last year, when Conduent took over.

“We have been having some issues,” Fennell said.

Months of frustration with Conduent at Tampa International boiled over April 28. A SunPass problem led to a parking outage that clogged lots for seven hours. Customers tweeted about it and voiced their anger in emails. Parking attendants would not open the gates to let cars out unless they paid. Later, staff estimated it would have cost the airport up to $30,000 an hour if they had.

SunPass first denied the problem was on their end and insisted the incident was isolated to Tampa’s airport, emails showed. The next day, Conduent acknowledged a server issue had affected all parking lots.

The situation was less than ideal for an airport that seeks recognition for its customer service. J.D. Power last year ranked Tampa International the fourth-best large airport in the U.S. at keeping travelers satisfied. The airport claims in its strategic parking plan that SunPass technology is “frictionless” and will “encourage this best-in-class customer experience.”

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Two weeks after the April meltdown, problems sprung up again. Airport parking staff brainstormed contingency plans for the inevitable next breakdown and the airport executive team discussed temporarily suspending SunPass. The governor’s office and lawmakers were asked to intercede, an email said.

Finally, when Tiliacos informed the Florida Turnpike Authority in May it might shut down SunPass lanes, the agency pressured Conduent to act. A workaround was agreed to and tested.

Yet, on June 13, Tiliacos sent Conduent a picture: A line of brake lights with cars backed up so far they didn’t all fit in the frame.

Their destination? The SunPass exit lanes of the airport’s parking lot.

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] and Lawrence Mower at [email protected]