Air Sickness

Air Sickness

Air Sickness

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
June 22 1999 3:30 AM

Air Sickness

The Caped Consumer Crusader takes on Northwest Airlines et al.

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Ready for vengeance, everyone?

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It is I, the Great Shopping Avenger, reporting to you from the Great Hall of Consumer Justice, a k a the Shopping Avenger's poorly air-conditioned attic office.

The Shopping Avenger has had a terribly busy month (Aquaman never had it so busy), and he is pleased to report that demand for his services has grown exponentially. He is also disconcerted, because the sheer number of e-mails in response to last month's installment means that too many evil corporations are treating too many loyal consumers without regard for the basic norms of customer care, such as answering the phone and not calling customers bad names.

Before we turn to this month's shameful examples of corporate malfeasance, a couple of housekeeping notes:

1) Two dozen readers wrote to let the Shopping Avenger know they were pissed off by his use of the term "pissed off" in last month's column. The term "is offensive to anyone with any sense of courtesy, pride in themselves, décor of personality, and sense of decency," the vengeful reader R. wrote.

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The Shopping Avenger notes that he possesses a great deal of "décor of personality." He also notes that many readers, driven to near madness by customer-service representatives, use strong language to describe their plights, and the Shopping Avenger is merely reflecting their anger. Though the Shopping Avenger offers this piece of advice: When writing to "consumer care specialists," or whatever they're being called today, do not use the honorific "asshole" by way of greeting. And remember: The assholes are the ones making seven-figure salaries. The people at the other end of the 800 line are lackeys and shills and running dogs, but they aren't assholes.

2) Speaking of lackeys, it has now been approximately 47 days since U-Haul spokeswoman Johna Burke promised to share her company's reservation policy with the Shopping Avenger. For those of you who missed the last episode, the Shopping Avenger attempted to help an aggrieved U-Haul customer who made a reservation for a truck, only to be told close to the time of pick-up that no such reservation existed.

Though U-Haul--apparently unimpressed by the supernatural power of the Shopping Avenger--has not deigned to provide answers, no fewer than 34 deputy Avengers e-mailed over the past month, complaining about U-Haul's reservation policy. "I reserved a U-Haul truck for a Saturday morning to be picked up at 8," one correspondent, T., reports. "I hired some help for the day to help me move. When I arrived that morning to pick it up, I was told it was not there yet. After much complaining, a few phone calls were made, and I was told the truck was 200 miles away."

T.'s complaint is entirely typical. Another member of the Avenging Brigade, B., wrote in to say this: "A U-Haul employee in Phoenix last 4th of July weekend told me the company had 2,000 reservations in Phoenix that weekend and 600 available trucks. My truck was three days late, and I only got it by threatening legal action."

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The Shopping Avenger will revisit the U-Haul issue each month until satisfactory explanations are provided. That is the least the Shopping Avenger can do for you, the pissed-off consumer.

Last month, the Shopping Avenger also put out a call for airline and pest-control horror stories. One wag, J., wrote in to ask, "Is there a difference between pests and airlines?" (Contest alert: Best punch line e-mailed to the Shopping Avenger will be rewarded by public mention in this space, plus a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax, if the Shopping Avenger can figure out what Turtle Wax is.)

The complaints poured in. As noted previously, the Shopping Avenger is but one superhero, and he issues abject apologies to all those who did not receive personal responses.

Pest control will be dealt with in a future episode. But about those airlines: The interesting thing about the airline complainants is that they don't even want the Shopping Avenger to seek retribution or restitution. All they want to do is vent. Maybe no one believes that airlines even care anymore or are capable of responding to complaints.

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The complaints covered the waterfront: baggage problems, surly flight attendants, mysteriously canceled flights, billing atrocities. But the most compelling complaints concerned bereavement fares. There's nothing like an airline screwing with someone who's going to bury his mother to make the blood boil.

"Recently, my mother passed away and I needed to travel from Orlando to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the next day in order to attend her funeral," our correspondent J.D. writes. "In June of last year, I had traveled to Orlando from Detroit on Northwest Airlines (that should send up a few red flags), and was given a $400 travel voucher because the plane literally did not show up. Being that airline tickets, even a bereavement fare, purchased at the last minute can be quite expensive, I opted to cash in my voucher."

J.D. says he made the reservation by telephone, holding the seat with his credit card. He was told to present his credit card with the voucher upon his arrival at the airport, where he would be charged, obviously, only for the part of the ticket not covered by the $400 voucher.

Then, trouble. "On arriving at the airport I proceeded to do this and was told by the agent that the tickets were already purchased and I could not use my voucher," J.D. writes. "I contested this, but she was unwilling to budge and unwilling to get a supervisor, telling me that, 'That's just the way it is.' "

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J.D. says he let it drop, vowing to "settle this upon my return from the funeral."

After the funeral, he contacted Northwest, he says, and after much frustrating dialing, reached an answering machine. "I had to leave my particulars on a voice mail because no agents were available to take my call. This worked out poorly, since when the agent called me back, she got my voice mail and left a message with the same number. So when I called back, of course all I got was the same opportunity to leave my particulars on their voice mail system."

This is when the customer says, "Arrrghh."

After much go-around, J.D. called American Express, told them his plight, and Amex canceled the entire charge.

I e-mailed Northwest spokeswoman Marta Laughlin, who responded first by questioning J.D.'s motivation: "The writer's remarks about the 'plane never showing up' and 'raising red flags' cause me to question his story. It just sounds like there's something more personal here."

One could argue that a passenger might have "personal" feelings about an airline after said airline messed with his head while he was traveling to his mother's funeral.

Laughlin followed up, though, by saying that "the death of anyone close is a very emotional and trying experience, and individuals frequently behave differently as a result of their pain." She's still blaming the customer but, she continues, the "Northwest employee at the airport should have taken extra steps to help the writer in his time of need. I wish that was the case, and I apologize on behalf of Northwest Airlines."

Grudging, double-edged, but an apology all the same.

We will return to the issue of airlines in a future episode, but the Shopping Avenger would like to relate another tale that caught his attention this past month. The company in question is Sprint PCS, and the story most definitively does not end with an apology.

In short strokes, the story goes like this: A customer, William Summerhill, an associate professor of history at UCLA, ordered two phones from Sprint PCS. He was billed for six--weirdly, at three different prices (still another charge, for one cent, was also billed to his credit card by Sprint PCS). He fought the bill; Sprint PCS fought back, by phone and fax, wasting a good amount of time.

Finally, his credit card company agreed that he was the victim of false billing and canceled out the charges for four of the six phones. Professor Summerhill continued to be billed, but one thing he did not receive in the mail was a rebate on one of the two remaining phones, part of a special promotion he signed up for. Though he paid for the two phones, he withheld paying his monthly fee until Sprint PCS straightened out his case and gave him his rebate. In response, Sprint PCS canceled his service and referred his case to a collection agency, which is threatening his credit rating.

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W hen I first contacted Sprint PCS (which is a tale in itself--the 800-line operator, citing policy, refused to disclose the telephone number of Sprint PCS headquarters, apparently fearing that customers might try to talk to the executives whose salaries they pay), a spokesman, Tom Murphy, told me the case was terribly complex. Actually, it isn't: Sprint PCS billed a customer for six phones, refused to stop billing him, and threatened him when he wouldn't pay for service pending a resolution of the problem.

Summerhill, who is now a happy customer of AT&T, says he will pay the monthly fees when he receives an apology and the rebate money. The rebate money is owed to him, and so is the apology. He estimates that he has spent 40 to 50 hours trying to straighten out the billing problem, which is clearly Sprint PCS's problem.

But no apology is forthcoming. The Shopping Avenger received an e-mail from Alison Hill, an "executive analyst" at Sprint PCS, who writes that she works "directly for Mr. Andrew Sukawaty, the President and CEO of Sprint PCS." Hill concedes that Sprint PCS was at fault for erroneously charging Summerhill for phones he did not want--she claims he was charged for two phones he didn't want, even though his records show he was billed for four--but she says the "customer is also at fault" for not paying his bill for telephone calls made on the phones he did use.

I spoke with Hill directly and told her it seemed reasonable to me that Summerhill would withhold payment until his billing dispute was settled and the rebate issue resolved. She said he was wrong. I mentioned to her the quaint notion that "the customer is always right," and she said, "in my opinion, the customer is wrong."

Obviously, the Shopping Avenger juju has not yet worked on Sprint PCS, but Summerhill reports that it has worked on the collection agency. "I told the agency that I was reporting this matter to the FCC, to the California consumer protection people, and to the Shopping Avenger at Slate. She didn't say anything about the FCC or the consumer protection people, but she did ask me to please not give the name of the collection agency to Slate."

Professor Summerhill has promised to tell everyone at UCLA and in his Army Reserve unit to boycott Sprint PCS. "I'm pro-business, I love America, I love capitalism, but these people are crazy," he said. "They could make this go away, but they won't."

Sprint PCS could take a cue from Southwest Airlines, one of a handful of companies in America with sterling reputations for customer service. A little while back, the Shopping Avenger received a plaintive e-mail from B., who reported that he was the only passenger on his flight not to receive free drink coupons. Apparently, the flight was late, and as a friendly gesture Southwest let the passengers get drunk on its dime. But not B. Somehow, he was skipped over.

The Shopping Avenger let Ed Stewart, Southwest's spokesman, know of B.'s sad story, and within hours, the Shopping Avenger received this reply: "As I'm sure you've heard, we here at Southwest Airlines pride ourselves on our Customer Service and would NEVER want it to be said that we deprived anyone--particularly a Customer!--the opportunity to have a drink on us."

Stewart says that B. will be mailed an apology, plus Southwest peanuts, plus a coupon book for free drinks--including mixed drinks!

"I hope that this will satisfy your sense of justice," he wrote.

It does indeed.

Got a consumer score you want settled? Send e-mail to shoppingavenger@slate.com.