October 6, 2022

The Haggler: A Mr. Nader Is Calling, and He Wants a Refund

Now, if you supported Al Gore and are still furious about Mr. Nader’s role in the 2000 presidential election, the mere mention of his name may make you boil.

Well, boil somewhere else.

This, if you need a reminder, is not a column about politics. It’s about consumer justice, and it is hard to think of anyone who has worked more tirelessly and more effectively for that cause than Ralph Nader. For the Haggler, a parvenu in the field, hearing from this guy was like a weekend fiddler’s getting a call from Mozart.

He phoned to tell a story, and it turned out to be a good one, with an interesting moral. It goes like this:

In March, Mr. Nader was scheduled to give a press conference and speech in Knoxville, Tenn. He’d bought two round-trip tickets — one for him, one for an associate — from Washington, on US Airways, for $1,380 apiece.

On the day of the event, the forecasts were for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, and Mr. Nader decided that it was possible his flight would be canceled. So he opted to jump in his car and drive.

He made his engagements in time and incurred two $150 cancellation fees from US Airways. But he didn’t get the rest of his money back. Instead, the airline offered credits that could not be transferred and had to be used within a year. Otherwise, they would be forfeited.

Suffice it to say, this did not please Mr. Nader.

“Could any dictatorship be more efficient?” he asked the Haggler. “The airlines have been pursuing this forfeiture thing for a decade now. It’s like printing money.”

So Mr. Nader wrote to US Airways and demanded a refund. The airline said no. Mr. Nader, you will not be surprised to learn, did not like that answer, and he escalated his campaign with calls.

About now, roughly half of readers are thinking some variation of the following: “Wait a minute. When Nader bought those tickets, he agreed to a contract, which no doubt stipulated all of the particulars that he later objected to. Too late, pal. If you didn’t like the terms, you shouldn’t have purchased that ticket.”

The Haggler hears you. And he’d like to respond with yet another story.

This one takes place in 1972, when a man — let’s call him Ralph Nader, because that was his name — bought a plane ticket from Washington to Hartford for a speaking engagement.

Unfortunately, the flight was overbooked and Mr. Nader was bumped. He sued, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation because the airline had not disclosed its policy of deliberately overbooking flights. The case ultimately landed in the Supreme Court, where Mr. Nader prevailed.

The $25,000 in damages he was originally awarded were ultimately whittled to nil. But his primary goal wasn’t to get rich. It was to change a policy. After his victory, airlines began holding those impromptu auctions in which passengers are asked if they will take a later flight in exchange for a goodie — like a credit for a round-trip ticket.

IF you’ve ever nearly been bumped from a seat but got on board courtesy of an instant auction, you can thank Mr. Nader. If you have ever raised your hand and said, “I’ll take the later flight and the goodie,” you can thank Mr. Nader, too.

The point isn’t that we should all send the man a card. The point is that just because the airline has a policy that it has turned into fine print doesn’t mean that it’s fair, or that you can’t object to it. If you object loudly enough, and in the proper places, you might even change the fine print.

It is worth noting that the airline that Mr. Nader was to fly that day in 1972 was Allegheny, which later became US Airways. But if there was any institutional memory about this episode at the carrier, which is now based in Tempe, Ariz., it was not evident. In March, Mr. Nader sent a letter to its chief executive, Doug Parker, who, according to Mr. Nader, did not respond. Then Mr. Nader called Mr. Parker twice. Nothing.

“It’s like trying to reach Fort Knox,” he said. “You can’t possibly get these guys.”

Question: How is it possible that the name “Ralph Nader” did not ring the equivalent of air-raid sirens at the office of US Airways?

Mr. Nader eventually spoke to an assistant to the general counsel of the airline and mentioned three words: small claims court.

That did it. On June 6, Mr. Nader received a letter from a customer relations rep named Kristy Garden, who wrote, “After review of your file, due to the circumstances and as a one-time courtesy, I have authorized a refund of your tickets.” And he got back his $300 in cancellation fees.

The Haggler also heard from Valerie Wunder, a spokeswoman for US Airways, who said it evaluated customer requests “on a case-by-case basis and so were able to resolve Mr. Nader’s issue.”

Now we come to the moral of the story.

“Small claims court is an unknown venue to most people,” Mr. Nader says.

In recent years, small claims courts have become the favorite places for collection companies to file for default judgments on an assortment of credit card and auto loan debts. But that was not their original purpose. When they blossomed in the 1960s, they were meant to be consumer-friendly places for disputes under a certain ceiling — today, $5,000 or so is typical.

“I read a lot of consumer books, and almost all of them completely ignore small claims court,” Mr. Nader says. “Few people know how simple the forms are, how accommodating the judges are. A lot of them are even open at night.”

The Haggler hears a couple times a month from people who have just been to small claims court, and usually they are writing to chest-thump about their victories. Why mention that? Because otherwise you might think this US Airways episode proves only that the airline was smart enough to dodge the P.R. calamity that fighting Mr. Nader in court would surely have been.

Not so. To win in small claims court, or, as happened here, to triumph just by threatening to file there, you don’t have to be named Ralph Nader.

Though it couldn’t hurt.

E-mail: haggler@nytimes.com. Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=9e901a8fee056d24b75c17ec9141e7fd

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