Some U.S. troops joke that their missing cars are at the ocean bottom. Photos of absent automobiles are posted online like the images of missing children on milk cartons. A few threatened to file stolen vehicle claims with insurers when a shipping company could not locate their cars.
"Still missing my husband's truck," Tabitha Nelson Smith posted on Facebook. "They actually called him 2 weeks ago and said his truck was here. He went to pick it up and it wasn't his!!! They were actually going to give him someone else's vehicle. I guess some poor soul on the other side of the world has our truck!"
A program that ships the personal vehicles of troops transferring between military bases, most to or from overseas, has been plagued with complaints about delayed deliveries since May 1. That's when International Auto Logistics of Brunswick, Ga., took over a government contract from a firm that had done the work for more than a decade.
IAL did not exist two months before it filed its bid for the contract, though its parent company has extensive experience shipping cars for auto manufacturers.
The firm's winning bid on a federal contract potentially worth $919 million was $38 million lower than the bid by American Auto Logistics, a New Jersey company whose work shipping troop cars, documents show, had generally been problem free.
A Facebook page set up by IAL customers to air complaints has more than 1,500 members with more added daily. Complaints include car deliveries delayed for several months, an inaccurate tracking system and little information about the location of cars in transit.
Both the military and IAL acknowledge problems but say they are working to eliminate delays and make the process more efficient. At any one time, documents show, up to 10,000 vehicles are being shipped free of charge for troops.
In a written statement, IAL officials said the company has delivered 25,000 vehicles in three months and promised customers will soon see the company's performance improve.
"IAL took over this contract during the busiest time of the year, leading to unanticipated quantities of vehicle shipping and processing requests which tested our new systems," the statement said.
American Auto Logistics officials declined to comment. But when the Tampa Bay Times first reported the contract switch in April, the firm offered dire warnings that the government dismissed as sour grapes.
"Contracting with an inexperienced company that has no infrastructure to conduct a complex global logistical operation . . . for 66,000 individual customers each year presents a significant risk of nonperformance. The burden . . . will be felt by military service members and their families," Ray Ebeling, chief of AAL, said in April.
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Tunis, 30, is a former St. Petersburg resident who recently transferred from a U.S. base in Germany to Kentucky. His 2011 Jeep Compass was supposed to be ready for pickup in St. Louis on June 17. But Tunis said the car went missing until late July.
He also said IAL failed to deliver customs paperwork, making him unable to register the car in the states.
"It's stressful enough when military families make a move," Tunis said. "I can see the company having a few bumps in the road the first few weeks. There's no excuse for them to be struggling this bad three months later."
Mary Toliver, 61, was a civilian Defense Department teacher who left her job in Germany earlier this year and moved to Florida. She is starting a new job with Brevard County schools Monday. But she will have to find a ride. Her car, which was supposed to be delivered July 18, is still missing.
"This is the cost of the lowest bid," she said.
U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the contract, has pointed out that it did not award the contract based simply on price. The command says it weighed whether IAL could do the work.
Command officials say they are working with IAL to iron out problems and said customers whose cars are delivered late can have rental car costs reimbursed.
IAL has opened a new call center to deal with customer complaints and has hired additional employees. The firm did not respond when asked how many people it employs.
TransCom officials said IAL was originally scheduled to take over the contract in December, the slowest point in the moving season. But the command said the start date was delayed until May, the height of the moving season, after AAL filed litigation.
The command said vehicle shipments in June and July were the highest ever.
"This would have been difficult for any company," it said.
The transition to a new company is especially inconvenient for Florida residents. In granting the new contract, the military closed the only vehicle-processing center in Florida, located in Orlando. Troops in the state must now go to Atlanta or Charleston, S.C., to pick up or drop off cars.
Sgt. Randall Taylor, 28, who lives near Wildwood, is leaving the Army and recently transferred home from Hawaii. His pickup truck was suppose to be delivered to him July 13. He will pick it up a month late.
"All of us," Taylor said, "we just want our cars."
Contact William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432 or [email protected]