Currently reading: Airport parking: what really happens when you leave your car?
More than 280,000 cars a year pass through Purple Parking Gatwick. Autocar takes a look behind the scenes

"He’s done a cuckoo, this stick’s full and that motor’s a Billy Bridges!” Arthur Daley, eat your heart out: you haven’t got anything on Purple Parking Gatwick, where the slang goes beyond reason, never mind rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, a cuckoo is what they call an arriving customer who drives in the ‘out’, instead of the ‘in’. A stick is what they call the hundreds of lines of cars parked by arrival date in the secure area. Billy Bridges is a section of the car park named after a local salvage yard, called GW&G Bridges Ltd, where customers’ cars that arrived with a flat tyre or a smashed windscreen await repair before the owner returns. That said, sometimes they have to give Billy a ring…

“One young lady parked her old Ford Ka here, flew abroad, got a job and never came back,” says general manager Garry Glover. “We tracked her down, but she told us we could keep the car. We hung on to it for 18 months and then got Billy to scrap it.”

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On a more sombre note, customers may take a turn for the worse on their hols and never reclaim their car. In that case, there’s a lot of work to be done establishing the legal right of a friend or relative to collect it.

Purple Parking Gatwick, located on the south side of the airport, can accommodate up to 3200 cars and deals with around 70 arrivals every hour in peak season. More than 280,000 cars and almost 900,000 people pass through each year. It’s a hands-on operation requiring an army of permanent staff, 24/7/365. You turn up, give them your key and catch a shuttle bus to your terminal while they park your car in a safe and secure area – on site.

That last bit is important. Every summer, the newspapers are filled with tales of rogue operators parking customers’ cars in supermarket car parks or on housing estates. Last year, police warned people flying from Gatwick to be wary of leaving their cars with ‘cowboy’ parking firms after 1000 vehicles were discovered parked up to their axles in mud in a field close to the airport.

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Thankfully, Purple Parking’s site is fully paved. It has the Park Mark seal of approval, too, meaning its security standards are up to scratch. If anything, it’s the customers who can be a bit fly, such as the guy who arrived in a brand new car and flew off for a fortnight, then came back and complained it had lost its new-car smell. Or the driver who claimed his car had alloy wheels when he arrived but now it had steels. The people who accuse Glover and his crew of breaking their mirrors, only to find there’s a power-fold button they didn’t know about. The owners who swear the car they’ve returned to isn’t theirs, until they remember they drove their partner’s car to the airport.

And the chap whose car is parked right in front of me – in the wrong place. According to Glover, he had his “holiday head on” and, instead of handing in his keys, got on the shuttle bus and left.

“We can deal with most things because we have CCTV and every car is photographed, so we know what condition it was in when it arrived,” says Glover. “It’s the ones who turn up for their cars early without warning who cause us the biggest headache. Their car is always the last in the stick, so they all have to come out.” Cars are parked by return date, their windscreen wipers indicating when in the day their owner is due back: midnight to 6am and 6am to noon, both wipers raised; noon to 6pm, one wiper raised; 6pm to midnight, no wipers raised.

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As for the parking, Glover wishes everyone drove a Smart. Back in the early 1990s, Purple Parking based the width of a car space on a BMW 3 Series. Today, a Ford Mondeo is wider, and as for a Range Rover…

Width wasn’t the issue with a BMW i8 that came in recently, though. Instead, its scissor doors meant they had to stick it in a special parking spot, just to get in it.

Every couple of minutes, we’re interrupted by the roar of a jet taking off just over the perimeter fence. “That’s nothing,” says Glover. “Sometimes it’s a loud bang as a suspension spring breaks. It happens at least a couple of times a month. When a car is left standing for a couple of weeks, it can be too much for a knackered spring.”

I watch as a customer claims his keys. Anish, a dentist, has returned from a short break in Iceland and is looking forward to getting home. Has he parked here before?

“Never,” he replies. “It’s a leap of faith leaving your car with someone, but it’s worked out well and it only cost £40. I’d do it again.”

As Anish steers his Nissan Qashqai through the exit, Glover heads back to his office, fingers crossed that no one does a cuckoo, breaks his sticks or needs a Billy Bridges.

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CalistoAsher460 7 September 2023

Finding affordable parking options at Heathrow Airport can be a real game-changer for travelers. Express Parking for Meet & Greet Heathrow T3 is like a hidden gem for those looking to save some extra cash without compromising on convenience. It's fantastic to see that there are cost-effective choices available to make the travel experience more budget-friendly. Thanks for sharing this valuable information!

tuga 14 May 2017


Sure as hell isn't " news ".
drchris 14 May 2017


I've parked with purple parking many many times. In my car I carry a coin purse with £1-2 coins.

On "every single occasion" where I left the coin purse in the car (and trust me I've tried really hard to remember to take it with me when arriving at the car park but thats the last thing on your mind when you have a plane to catch!!), it went missing upon collecting my car from them.

I've reported it to purple parking - but at no occasion did they make an attempt to recover the purse or find the perpetrator.
Its not the £10 or £12 though. Its the fact that someone went through your glove box or armrest compartment and stole something.

So my suggestion is, when leaving your keys to airport car park firms, make sure you leave "nothing" valuable inside. Theres a great chance they will go through your stuff.

scotty5 15 May 2017

drchris wrote:

drchris wrote:

I've parked with purple parking many many times. In my car I carry a coin purse with £1-2 coins.

On "every single occasion" where I left the coin purse in the car (and trust me I've tried really hard to remember to take it with me when arriving at the car park but thats the last thing on your mind when you have a plane to catch!!), it went missing upon collecting my car from them.

We only have your word for that. It's quite ridiculous to suggest complaining about items that weren't logged otherwise everyone would be claiming they left money / phones / tablets in their car. Little point in you offering advice as I'm very sure everyone will find it mentioned in the T&C. You'd have to be crazy to leave valuables inside the car and then hand keys over to someone you've never met. What on earth do you expect the company to do about it? It's your word against the word of their driver!

Last thing on your mind when you've a plane to catch? Have you ever forgotton your airline ticket? Your wallet? Your mobile phone? Your house keys? etc. If you are absent minded, the obvios solution is to remove everything from your car the night before you travel.