Service members and their families are increasingly reporting delays and other problems associated with the shipment of their cars and personal vehicles between stateside and overseas posts.
The complaints come just months after the Defense Department hired a new contractor, International Auto Logistics -- the Brunswick, Georgia-based subsidiary of the IAP Group -- to handle the shipping service.
An online system that's supposed to track the location of the vehicles often contains incorrect information, users say. Help lines with the company go unanswered, voicemail boxes are full and vehicles seem to be outright missing as company representatives give conflicting reports as to the location of the cars, troops and their families say.
"Apparently IAL also has the ability to see into the future now as my [tracker] page says that my car arrived in Honolulu on 30 July -- even though they told me last week it was already here, in a crate, and ready to be picked up tomorrow," Nicole Hunt, a Navy spouse moving from California to Hawaii wrote July 27 on a new Facebook page dedicated to complaints and support for those dealing with the problems.
The Facebook page, "International Auto Logistics: Reviews, Complaints, and Inconveniences," was started July 22 by Army wife Adrienne Estrada and four friends based at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, after their feeds were filled with complaints about car shipments to the island, she said. While Estrada's vehicle isn't due to arrive at Honolulu from Schweinfurt, Germany, until Aug. 22, her attempts to track its location online have failed.
"My husband has even called the Honolulu vehicle processing center in order to get a pinpoint location of our vehicle," she said. "We were told, 'I can't see it anywhere on our system. It might be in the U.S. somewhere. It's probably in Los Angeles since it's coming to Hawaii.'"
Company officials blame the rocky first three months on what they called a "perfect storm" of problems -- getting a new system off the ground while facing the highest POV shipment volume since 1988. They were also surprised by the number of queries from customers who wanted to follow their car's exact location over transit, they said, resulting in communication that overwhelmed call center staff.
The firm's $305 million contract was originally set to start late last fall, a slow time for vehicle shipments that would have given them a chance to work out kinks before peak summer season, they said. But after the previous contractor, American Auto Logistics, protested the contract award, the start date was delayed until May 1.
"It's not an excuse, but we started at the busiest time of the year," Doug Tipton, IAL's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview with Military.com.
Tipton also said some employees were hired just days before the contract was set to start and therefore didn't receive adequate training in time. Many of the tracking problems can be attributed to staff errors or data entered incorrectly by workers on ships that are transporting the vehicles, he said.
"It has been a little rough around the edges starting up, but we're getting better every day," he said.
As of July 24, the company had received 22,000 personal vehicles from service members, more than a third of which were transitioned from the previous contractor, Tipton said. Of the total number of vehicles, 12,000 are in transit, 5,000 have been delivered, 3,000 are awaiting shipment and 2,000 are awaiting pick-up, he said.
Officials with the former contractor, AAL, said between May 1 and July 28 they've received 9,700 phone calls and 2,400 walk-ins at their vehicle processing centers from service members, many of whom were contacting the company because they didn't know about the contract change and were seeking help in locating their vehicles.
Service members still waiting for their cars to arrive said they're racking up rental car and airline costs. And while Tipton said IAL is readily reimbursing costs, including airline ticket on a case-by-case basis, troops and family members are worried they'll never see the money.
An Air Force Captain who recently changed posts from Germany to Minot, North Dakota, with his wife, 1-year-old son and two dogs and asked that his name not be used, said he shipped his car on May 21.
"I flew to the states to pick it up on July 3 like the company's paperwork told me to do. The website said that my car had made it to Norfolk port, and I thought I might have to wait a few days for customs," he said. "After 10 days of waiting on the East Coast being given every excuse in the book, I finally had to make the trip to North Dakota without my car. To date, the company still cannot tell me where my car is and when I might receive it."
He added, "We are out of pocket for the rental vehicle I had to get to make the trip, as well as the money I will need to spend to fly back to Baltimore to pick up the Jeep -- if it ever gets in."
Christina Griffin, an Air Force wife, shipped her car from Texas to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, in early June, expecting it to arrive by June 22. Two weeks before the arrival date, she received an e-mail saying it would be delayed, but wasn't given a new date, she said.
Information on IAL's website states her vehicle has been at Bremerhaven, Germany, for a month awaiting shipment to Spangdahlem, but a separate tracking system shows her vehicle container arrived there July 27. Meanwhile, Griffin's husband was spending over $40 a day on a rental to get to and from work before an IAL representative was able to book them a vehicle.
Tipton said military members can fill out an inconvenience claims form for reimbursements. He said those who need rental cars can have those charges directly billed to IAL by allowing representatives there to book the car for them. Military members who are interested in that process should email firstname.lastname@example.org for help and can expect a response within 48 hours, he said.
Learn more about rental car reimbursement during overseas car shipments at Military.com's Paycheck Chronicles.
Still, other service members are having problems with cars stored stateside during an overseas permanent change of station, or PCS, by the previous contractor.
When IAL took over the contract in May, those vehicles were to be transferred to its care. But service members and spouses say officials with the new contractor either don't know the location of their vehicles or don't return phone calls. And with a 13-hour time difference between duty stations such as Japan and the U.S., and no 24-hour help center, troops are having a hard time contacting anyone.
Melissa Quilici, a Navy wife whose family is in the process of moving back to the U.S. from Japan, didn't know about the contractor change until she tried to set-up her car for release from stateside storage. IAL's website says her vehicles location is "pending."
"We left our car with AAL in 2011 and up until a week ago, assumed that's where it still was," she said.
Quilici said the maintenance records that IAL is supposed to make available to owners are missing, and staff has been unable to give consistent answers about the location of their vehicle. She is worried that it's lost.
According to the DoD solicitation specifying IAL's requirements, the company is required to provide "in transit visibility" to customers via its website as part of its contract.
Tipton said the company has not lost any cars. "Unequivocally we have not lost any vehicles," he said. "They are in the system somewhere."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.