EDMONTON – Telltale signs are flat tires, expired licence plates and heaps of snow.
Parking staff at the Edmonton International Airport regularly patrol its vast lots and keep a list of vehicles that have been sitting in the same spot for too long.
Last year, they counted roughly 120 abandoned cars and trucks.
Airport parking manager Brett Bain circles an older-model, white Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and points out a 2009 sticker on its licence plate. He guesses the car hasn’t been there for seven years, but long enough.
He strolls down the row to a dark-coloured Chevrolet Cavalier. It has no plate at all.
“They’re not coming back,” he says.
Bain believes there are many reasons why people have dumped or forgotten vehicles at the airport. Some are oilpatch workers from the Maritimes or Ireland who have lost their jobs in the Fort McMurray area or had family problems back home and weren’t able to return Alberta.
But he doesn’t believe recent job layoffs in the oil industry have resulted in more abandoned cars.
Sometimes, the vehicles aren’t worth the effort or parking fees to get them out, he adds.
Other times, people go on vacation and die.
“Their family may or may not be aware that they had a vehicle here at the airport. There are many, many different reasons.”
Airport spokeswoman Heather Hamilton says it can be a bit of a mystery. Some vehicles look well-maintained and have personal items such as family photos and mail sitting inside.
“It looks like the person could be back in an hour,” she says. “You sort of wish the car could talk.”
Several other airports — from Whitehorse in Yukon to Perth, Australia — have experienced the same problem. In 2012, it was reported that loads of luxury cars were left at airports in the United Arab Emirates, where it was believed the owners were foreigners fleeing to avoid the country’s tough debt laws.
Other big parking lots in Edmonton don’t seem to have the same problem. Spokespeople with West Edmonton Mall, the University of Alberta and parking-lot company Impark say they don’t deal with many abandoned cars.
And an official at Calgary’s airport says it only gets a few each year.
Edmonton’s airport still gets a couple each month, says Hamilton. What makes the airport unique is the high number of passengers who are mobile workers — about 900,000 went through last year — and that must be a factor, she says.
Hamilton suggests the high count of 120 abandoned vehicles last year can also be attributed to a backlog from recent years as RCMP took over tracking down owners.
If airport staff spy a vehicle that looks abandoned, they typically wait 45 days before notifying RCMP, Hamilton explains. If no one has come forward by then, Mounties attempt to find the owner and, if they do, there’s a 90-day period to claim it.
After that, if a car or truck still isn’t claimed, it’s seized and handed over to the provincial government to auction or sell in pieces. Service Alberta says 9,716 abandoned and seized vehicles were disposed of in 2014-15 and, after paying towing and storage costs, the department made $582,000.
Bain says about 20 vehicles on the list of 120 remain at the airport, but will soon be towed away like the others. One was a newer pickup truck worth about $30,000.
Hamilton adds that as months go by, parking fees can add up to hundreds and thousands of dollars. The airport has waived fees for some owners who want their vehicles back and can explain their story.
“We’re trying to be reasonable,” she says.
“We just want the car gone.”