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Consummate Consumer

Old Adage Holds: Get It in Writing

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page C10

On a business trip three years ago, Mike Shannon was bending down in the Miami airport security line to get out his laptop when a hurried American Airlines flight attendant collided with him. Pushing past him without apology, he says, she rolled her luggage over his tote bag and dismissed his pointed suggestion that she allow him to move out of her way.

When he called her "rude," she threw down her luggage and "went berserk," says Shannon, a reserve police officer in Dumfries.

The incident, witnessed by a security guard and others, escalated until the attendant was berating him loudly and screaming obscenities, says Shannon. When she reported falsely that he threatened her, he says, his flight was delayed and airline security removed him from the plane "as a danger to the crew."

Shannon, a platinum member of American Airlines' frequent flier program, sent a letter to the chairman of American, complaining about the abuse and humiliation, and pointing out the airline's legal liability. The airline investigated, then negotiated a settlement that included $7,500 in flight vouchers.

Shannon says that at the time he and his wife, Janet, told the American Airlines negotiator that they could not use that amount in air travel over a single year, the airline's standard use-it-or-lose-it deadline policy on vouchers.

"He told us this was no problem and he would extend the remaining vouchers at the end of the year," says Shannon.

When a year passed, they called about the extension. The negotiator asked them to return their unused vouchers "and said he would take care of it," says Shannon.

But American Airlines, saying it has no evidence of agreeing to extend the deadline, has refused to extend nearly $3,800 in remaining vouchers at full value to the Shannons, offering instead to renew them at 50 percent.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner says if the airline had agreed to defer its voucher policy, it would have sent "an official letter" to the Shannons. But the airline has no copy of such a letter, he says, and the negotiator "didn't have anything in his notes saying he had verbally agreed to extend the deadline."

Adds Wagner: "If Mr. Shannon can produce a letter stating that we would give the full value of the vouchers, he should produce it. In good faith, we did give him back $1,800 to $1,900 in vouchers. . . . We did bend our policy to reissue the amount that we did."

Shannon says he doesn't have a letter "because they never sent one." He adds, "We made a deal and they are not honoring it."

This case is yet another reminder: If you think you have an agreement, get it in writing. This is not just a consumer cliche.

"We see this every day. It's a huge problem," says Jim Hood, president and editor in chief at ConsumerAffairs.com, an advocacy site.

Although the marketplace protocol saying "the customer is always right" seems obsolete, consumers sometimes do get it wrong, too, or get confused. But if, as Shannon says, American Airlines' negotiator had made a promise that the airline isn't standing behind, it's the kind of broken deal many consumers encounter -- though typically such assurances are made by customer service representatives who "have no idea what they're talking about and just want to get the customer off the line," says Hood.

And there is no sure protection, he says. "Where big bucks are at stake, we recommend that the customer takes careful notes, then send a certified letter to the company outlining the terms of the verbal agreement and stipulating that, by its receipt of the letter, the company agrees to be bound by the agreement."

But even getting it in writing isn't the consumer cure-all, says Hood. Some companies blow off written agreements, he says, others make verbal promises and then ask customers to sign agreements that in fine print void the verbal agreement. "The most common example is the car or furniture salesman who makes oral promises, then has the consumer sign an ironclad contract that specifically provides that oral promises are not binding."

So always demand a written deal, says Hood. And before signing it, "the consumer should take the contract home and read it line by line, or have someone else read it for them. Once the deed is done, it's very hard to unravel it."

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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