You Don't Tug on the Avenger's Cape

You Don't Tug on the Avenger's Cape

You Don't Tug on the Avenger's Cape

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
Oct. 6 1999 3:30 AM

You Don't Tug on the Avenger's Cape

And U-Haul, TWA, and British Airways will be advised to keep their hands off his codpiece, too.

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G reetings, oh frustrated and bone-weary consumer! It is I, the great Shopping Avenger, who has pledged himself to the betterment of all humankind, or at least to that portion of humankind that shops at Circuit City and rents trucks from U-Haul.

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The Shopping Avenger has much to discuss today: You will hear the tale of a Hasidic rabbi who suffered greatly at the hands of TWA, but who, due to his mystical and gentle nature, sought not the help of lawyers but instead the help of Shopping Avenger, who is a part-time kabalist and runs special discounts for clergy every Tuesday, and you will also learn the winning answer to the recent contest question "How much Turtle Wax constitutes a year's supply of Turtle Wax?"

But first, the Shopping Avenger would like to tell his own tale of consumer woe. Many of you might find this a shocking statement, but even the Shopping Avenger sometimes gets smacked upside the head by the evil forces of rampant capitalism. Granted, this seldom happens when the Shopping Avenger is wearing his cape and codpiece and special decals, but the Shopping Avenger seldom ventures outside the Great Hall of Consumer Justice in his cape and codpiece and special decals, on account of the fact that he doesn't want to get arrested.

What you should know is that by day the Shopping Avenger is a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan magazine, and it is in this guise that the Shopping Avenger sometimes finds himself holding the short end of the consumer stick. Whatever that means.

Take the following incident, which occurred at Heathrow airport, which, I am told, is somewhere in Europe. The Shopping Avenger, who was scheduled to transit home from the Middle East through Heathrow, was feeling ill and generally fed up at the end of his trip and so decided to upgrade himself, using his own money, to business class. The total cost of the ticket: $1,732. Remember that exorbitant sum.

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The first flight, out of the Middle East, left late and arrived even later at Heathrow, though not too late to make the connection. However, the Shopping Avenger and several other passengers were met at the gate by a British Airways agent, who said that there was no time to make the connection, which was leaving from a different terminal. Technically, he admitted, there was enough time, but since British Airways was committed to "on-time departures," the plane's doors would be closing early. The Shopping Avenger argued in his mild-mannered manner that British Airways did not, in fact, have a commitment to "on-time departures" because the originating flight did not depart on time. The Shopping Avenger received no answer to this statement. Instead, the Shopping Avenger was booked onto a later flight and so asked the agent if he could use a British Airways telephone to call Mrs. Shopping Avenger, who would be waiting for him at the other end. The agent directed the Shopping Avenger to the British Airways business-class lounge, where a telephone would be made available to him.

You, of course, know what happened next. The Shopping Avenger was told by a very nasty airline employee that only first-class passengers would be allowed to use the telephone. When the Shopping Avenger argued, in an increasingly less mild-mannered manner, that the call was necessitated by a British Airways screw up and, therefore, British Airways should pay for the call, he was told that pay phones could be found outside the lounge. This was when Shopping Avenger stated very loudly that for $1,732, he should be allowed to make a two-minute phone call. And it was the weekend! Weekend calling rates, for Pete's sake!

But British Airways is an insufferably greedy little company, and so the Shopping Avenger was given no recourse but to invoke the power of his high office. The Shopping Avenger asked this nasty lady if she had ever heard of the Shopping Avenger. To the Shopping Avenger's dismay, this was her answer: "No."

What about Slate magazine? "No."

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Well, whatever. The Shopping Avenger, while not identifying himself as the Shopping Avenger--this would have meant changing into his codpiece and cape in the business-class lounge--informed this poorly informed British Airways employee that the Shopping Avenger was America's foremost consumer advocate (this is a lie, but she's English, so what does she know?) and that the Shopping Avenger would hear about this treatment and seek vengeance.

Well, did her tune ever change. Not exactly her tune--she remained as mean as a ferret, but she did let Shopping Avenger use her telephone.

The moral of this story for the world's airlines: Penny-pinching might make you rich, but it also gets you blasted in Slate magazine. The other moral: Superheroes should never travel without their codpiece under their pants.

There is only one airline the Shopping Avenger believes understands the fundamentals of customer service, and that is Southwest Airlines. But more on that in the next episode. First, this month's U-Haul outrage. The following letter contains perhaps the funniest story the Shopping Avenger has heard about U-Haul, and by now the Shopping Avenger has received upward of 6.7 million complaints about U-Haul. The story comes from one Susan Hwang:

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"A year ago, I, too, reserved a truck at U-Haul and get this--they said someone with my SAME NAME--Susan Hwang is really common--and going to the SAME SUBURB of Chicago, picked up my truck. Amazing!! They had to rent a bigger truck to me, which, of course cost more and at that point, they have you by the balls."

At least the anatomically confused Susan Hwang got her truck. Most of the Shopping Avenger's correspondents wind up having to rent from Ryder and Budget, who seem to keep extra trucks on hand in order to benefit from U-Haul's nefarious practice of overbooking.

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O n a semi-positive note, the Shopping Avenger did finally hear from Johna Burke, the U-Haul spokeswoman, who apologized for the inconvenience caused K., the original U-Haul complainant. (For other U-Haul horror stories, click here.) K., you'll recall, was left standing in the U-Haul parking lot when a credit-card reservation he'd made was dishonored by U-Haul. "Mr. K.'s two day rental reservation should have been honored so long as he provided us with his credit card number, which we will assume was the case. This is what we at U-Haul call a 'confirmed reservation.' "

Burke's letter, though, is filled with what we at Shopping Avenger call "bullshit."

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"Once we have a confirmed reservation we should have moved heaven and earth to see that Mr. K.'s two day reservation was filled," Burke wrote.

Yes, of course they should have--but they never do. This is not Burke's fault. She is simply paid to explain the inexplicable. The Shopping Avenger has received 164--no exaggeration for effect in this instance--letters so far from people who say they had confirmed reservations with U-Haul, only to show up and find no truck waiting for them. The Shopping Avenger would like to hear from more--to show Burke and the bossmen at U-Haul the hollowness of their concept of "confirmed reservations."

One more thing before we get to our tale of rabbinical woe: the winning answer to the recent contest question "How much Turtle Wax comprises a year's supply of Turtle Wax?"

Fifty-eight of you wrote in, 48 with the correct answer, which is, of course: "Depends upon how many Turtles you wanna wax," in the words of one of our winners, Samir Raiyani. Or, as another of our winners, Karen Bitterman, wrote, it "depends on the size of the turtle--and whether or not you park it in a covered space."

Unfortunately, because so many of you wrote in with the more or less correct answer, the Shopping Avenger is unable to award the contest prize, which was to be a year's supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.

Now to our hapless rabbi, Rabbi S., who wrote the Shopping Avenger seeking worldly justice in his case against TWA. The story of Rabbi S. is entirely typical of the airline industry--a minor problem made enormous by the cruelty and ignorance of employees who are, in theory, hired by the greedheads who run the airlines to take care of passengers.

Rabbi S., his wife, and kids arrived at Kennedy airport in time for his flight to Detroit, parked curbside, unloaded their luggage, and proceeded to the check-in counter. There the rabbi asked a TWA representative if he could leave his luggage by the counter for his wife to check in while he parked the car, to which he received a positive response and left to go park. No one told him, though, that he must first show his driver's license to the ticket agent.

The ticket agent refused to check the rabbi's bags once he left, telling the wife that "security reasons" forbade him from checking the luggage of ticket holders who were not present. But then she told Rabbi S.'s wife: "If you want, you can pay an extra $100 for the extra bags"--i.e., charge his luggage to her ticket.

"How could it be a security issue," Rabbi S. wrote the Shopping Avenger, "if they're ready to take money for the bags?"

Rabbi S. was running late (Kennedy airport is not a parking-friendly place), and his wife refused to check her bags without his bags. She was then told that she would miss the flight, and then her children began crying, and then she began crying.

Rabbi S. finally made it back to Terminal 25 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart. His wife handed him one baby and took the other to the gate. "The woman at the counter treated me like a piece of dirt," he wrote. "First she said she's not sure whether the flight is still open. Then she took more than five minutes to look around and find someone who said, 'Yeah, I think we just closed it a minute ago.' ... In the meantime, my wife went to the gate and the people at the gate told her there's plenty of time for me--and let her wait outside the gate for me for another 15 minutes. Alas, my wife didn't realize that [I] could not come because of the luggage issue and the haughtiness of the people downstairs."

At the ticket counter, Rabbi S. was told that he wouldn't make this flight and that he should book himself on another. His wife and one of his children, meanwhile, got on the flight to Detroit. Rabbi S. had TWA book him on another flight, a Delta flight, and he schlepped--that's the only word for it--to the Delta terminal, only to be told that his was a "voluntary" transfer--he was late for his TWA flight--and so therefore he would have to pay an additional $300. "My fault!?!? I'm thinking to myself, 'If your people would have been competent enough to tell me that I should show my license and courteous enough to put the luggage on for my wife, then I would be on a flight now with my family to Detroit, not roaming an airport with a starving baby being sent on a wild goose chase."

Here the story becomes as confusing as the Book of Leviticus, but suffice it to say that TWA continued to torture Rabbi S. for another day--finally forcing him to buy a new $400 ticket.

"I have never in my life been treated so horribly," Rabbi S. wrote.

The Shopping Avenger contacted Jim Brown, a TWA spokesman, to discuss Rabbi S.'s case. To his surprise--the Shopping Avenger has not had very good experiences on TWA--Brown investigated the complaint and wrote: "TWA has issued a credit for the value of Rabbi S.'s ticket for $244. In addition, a Customer Relations representative has been communicating with the rabbi on this incident and is sending him the difference between that ticket and the cost of a new ticket, $219, plus a letter of apology for the behavior of our representatives at Kennedy Airport. She is also enclosing four travel coupons valued at $75 each."

Brown, however, had no explanation for the behavior at the Kennedy ticket counter--entirely typical behavior that often makes the already unpleasant air travel experience completely unbearable.

In the next episode, the Shopping Avenger will tell the story of Southwest Airlines, the only airline that seems to actually care about customer service. But the Shopping Avenger needs your help! Keep those airline stories coming--and all those other stories, too--except computer stories. Let me say again, the Shopping Avenger does not fix computers.

One final request: The Shopping Avenger would like to hear from anyone who has actually eaten Rice-a-Roni and from anyone who could explain why it is known as "the San Francisco treat."

Onward, shoppers!