the shopping avenger
Air Sickness: The Caped Consumer Crusader takes on Northwest
Airlines et al.
By Jeffrey Goldberg
Ready for vengeance, everyone?
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, decor of personality, and sense of
decency," the vengeful reader R. wrote.
The Shopping Avenger notes that he possesses a great deal of "decor
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
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
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."
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.
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.' " 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
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
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
When 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
"I hope that this will satisfy your sense of justice," he wrote.
It does indeed.