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A gas-card ration system being rolled out by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service and U.S. Army Europe in 2008 has been in the works for more than six years, when the German government first requested a change to the current paper coupon system.

Citing the potential for abuse, the German Federal Ministry of Finance’s customs department laid out in May 2000 how it would like to see a replacement for the coupon system work, said Robert Szostek, a spokesman for USAREUR’s provost marshal’s office. USAREUR is overseeing the project as U.S. European Command’s executive arm.

“The gas coupon system is outdated, time consuming to evaluate, labor intensive to manage and oversee, and vulnerable to abuse,” Szostek said in an e-mail last week. “The gas card system designed to replace it is more efficient and up to date with the advances in technology.”

But since that request for change, it’s been a game of back and forth between the Americans and their German counterparts regarding how the system will work and how to incorporate a credit card-style gas ration plan into the electronic credit card systems used in Esso stations across Germany.

“This is literally being built from scratch and is a complex system,” said David Mattingly, an official with the Army’s Installation Management Command, which is overseeing the project. “And it’s a long process when you have a sovereign nation representing [its] interests and U.S. forces representing its interests.”

Set to roll out in March 2008, the personalized gas cards will allow customers to top up cards with money at any AAFES outlet. They will then be able to use those cards instead of fuel coupons at Esso stations in Germany or AAFES stations on bases.

The cards will be available to all U.S. military owners of registered vehicles in Germany, to include those from U.S. Air Forces in Europe and qualified NATO personnel, Mattingly said. Mattingly was unable to say how much the new program will cost USAREUR and AAFES — the main American entities that are involved.

As the release date draws closer, AAFES will have a new section on its Web site to deal with frequently answered questions, Judd Anstey, an AAFES spokesman, said in an e-mail last week.

While German officials from the Finance Ministry did not respond for comment, ministry spokesman Oliver Heyder-Rentsch said in an e-mail that the possibility of misuse exists and needs to be prevented.

A long affair

After the German government requested the change, it took more than four years for the American side to present options for a new system to the Germans, Mattingly said.

Between needing to connect everyone in the USAREUR vehicle registry, SOFA issues and connecting the new cards to every AAFES and Esso outlet out there, the system became very complex very quickly, Mattingly said.

The gas card system was agreed to in October of this year, he said.

Under the new system, there will be one fuel card per vehicle, but the card will be able to have two or more eligible drivers listed as users. The cards will keep track of the cash balance as well as that customer’s monthly fuel allotment, Mattingly said.

“That’s where it’s really unique,” he said. “It’s a debit card in a way, but it’s also a ration control system, and the two merge together.”

There has also been the task of syncing the cards with the German electronic banking system used in Esso stations, Mattingly said.

Personnel just coming into Germany will be able to get a card when they arrive once the system is online, he said, but it’ll get trickier for the approximately 100,000 eligible vehicle owners already here.

“The system will not allow individuals to have an activated fuel card and still purchase or use fuel coupons,” Mattingly said this week in an e-mail.

There will also be a transition period between when a person is notified that their fuel card is ready and when they must activate it, he said. During that transition period, customers will still be able to use their coupons, and once their card is activated, they’ll be able to get a refund on their unused coupons.

But all that is still a way’s off, and unforeseen circumstances could change the timetable, he said.

“It has taken some time,” Mattingly said. “We only reached agreement between the German government and AAFES and Esso on what the system would be this October. We have the ‘what’ pretty much agreed on at this point.”

Aral won’t accept gas card right away

While the new fuel ration cards being developed by U.S. Army Europe and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service will eliminate the hassle of the coupon-based system, the credit-card-like upgrade won’t help customers when they need to get gas on the autobahn.

That’s because the new cards won’t initially work at autobahn Aral stations where coupons are currently accepted, said David Mattingly, an official with the Army’s Installation Management Command, which is overseeing the transition.

However, he said, every Esso in Germany will take the new cards, so customers won’t have to check inside to see if their coupons are accepted in more remote areas of the country.

Once the system is released in March 2008, it will become clearer if, and when, Aral stations and other fuel outlets can be added, he said, with Aral availability likely not coming before September 2008.

“From this side, we agree that this is an inconvenience and we hope that it is only temporary,” Mattingly said in an e-mail. “We know that many U.S. Forces personnel, including me, make use of Aral autobahn gas stations on a fairly or very regular basis.

“Please know that we made every effort to include Aral in phase one, but the step-by-step process of system development could not consider including Aral, or any other autobahn stations, until the system is proven to be fully functional for all eligible users at all AAFES and Esso stations throughout Germany.”

— Geoff Ziezulewicz

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