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BIG TRIP NETS A $624 PARKING BILL

A Palmetto man returns home from Alaska to find he can't afford the airport parking fee.

In late February, Richard Hettinga trekked from his home in Palmetto to Tampa International Airport for a trip to Alaska. He had never flown out of there before, and when he arrived to catch his early morning flight he parked his Ford F-150 pickup truck in the long-term parking garage.

Big mistake.

One long journey later, he returned Sunday night to find himself stuck with a parking bill for $624 - the sum total of the $16 daily fees for the 39 days he was gone. Hettinga, 63, a retired carpenter who lives on a fixed income, had less than $100 in his pocket and no way to pay the bill until a Social Security deposit came Wednesday.

"I asked them, 'How can we work this out?'" he said. "Due to policy, they couldn't help me out."

Despite his tale of a harrowing journey, which included an injured knee and the theft of his credit cards, airport officials were bound by the practice that in many cases a car must stay until the driver can pay.

Hettinga was incensed, but felt he could do nothing but wait it out.

That meant taking a shuttle home Sunday night. But, worried about what might happen to the truck, which he bought in 2010, he rode his Schwinn bicycle back to the airport Monday. Then, it meant spending the night in his cab, eating Burger King and trail mix while biding his time.

His predicament was not all that uncommon.

About 20 times a month, people get to the airport toll plaza and don't have enough money to pay the fee, said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink. A private vendor handles the airport's parking operations.

Last year, the largest individual parking fee totaled $5,000.

"Their policy is that if the bill is less than $20, they issue a promissory note, with the understanding that they will come back and pay it later," Zink said. "If it's more than $20, they contact the aviation authority and they decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle the situation."

In Hettinga's case, his tale of traveler's woe led airport officials to offer to pay for a cab to take him home, then back again when he was able to pay.

It worked out.

By noon Wednesday, Hettinga's check came in.

He rode in a cab back to the airport, where he got in the truck then pulled up to a booth and handed over $624 in cash.

He shook hands with the clerk, took a receipt and headed home.

* * *

Biggest bills

The top five biggest parking bills last year at Tampa International Airport:

$5,000

$2,745

$1,814

$1,632

$1,536

Source: Tampa International Airport

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