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US Airways clips wings of frequent critic

 
Published Nov. 17, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

You'd think a struggling airline would do everything possible to hold onto one of its most frequent fliers.

But US Airways drew the line this month at Jeffrey Gitomer of Charlotte, N.C., an author and consultant to companies on selling and customer service. The airline banned him _ the first time it ever "fired" a customer _ and took away his frequent flier miles.

Exactly why US Airways took such drastic action is a hot topic of debate on bulletin boards of air travel Web sites such as FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com).

US Airways informed Gitomer of its decision the week after he raked the airline in his column published by American City Business Journals. Gitomer said the airline has lousy food, unfriendly employees and poor service.

US Airways shot back in a letter to the newspaper, calling Gitomer a chronic complainer whose outbursts have brought employees to tears. He recently threatened to criticize US Airways in public forums until a senior executive returned his calls and took action on his complaints, wrote Chris Chiames, senior vice president of corporate affairs.

In an interview, Gitomer described himself as a demanding, but not abusive, customer. He remembered only one time that he made an employee cry, several years ago.

Because US Airways flies 86 percent of departures from Charlotte, Gitomer said, the travel ban is complicating his business trips and making him miss family events. "From my perspective," he said, "it was a very disappointing reaction and one not deserved."

As much as Gitomer complained about US Airways, Chiames said, he kept flying the airline. "At the end of the day, we're not going to let someone be abusive to our employees," the airline executive said.

_ STEVE HUETTEL

A bottle of that old college spirit

How about a nice USF chardonnay? University of South Florida alumni now can toast each other with their own private-label wines.

The USF Alumni Association cut a deal with Signature Wines of Hayward, Calif., which custom-labels wines from West Coast wineries for hotels, retailers and several dozen alumni groups, including the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida College of Medicine. The groups get a royalty on sales.

Prices for a case of 12 bottles range from $132 for chardonnay to $276 for merlot. Mixed sets of four, six and 12 bottles also are available, starting at $46. To comply with Florida law, the Signature wines take a roundabout journey, going through a Florida wholesaler and retailer before they reach the customer. The shipping charge, normally $25 a case, is $5 for the holidays.

Not a USF grad? You can have your own labels made up for a wedding, birthday or other special occasion.

_ HELEN HUNTLEY

Quote-unquote

"We and our industry are fairly desperate characters these days. Even a welfare rate of return is better than no rate of return."

_ Richard Lehfeldt, senior vice president at TECO Energy of Tampa, quoted in the Wall Street Journal on the struggle by his company and others to find buyers for the glut of energy produced at wholesale power plants.

Dismissing rumors of a sale

The rumors keep swirling about the Royal Bank of Canada going after Republic Bank of St. Petersburg.

The Charlotte Observer and American Banker are the latest to add grist to the mill with recent stories reporting the possibility of a union.

Republic chief executive Bill Klich, who says he's not even talking to the Canadian bank, views the speculation with bemusement.

He thinks the stories were triggered by a St. Petersburg Times article Aug. 19 saying that Royal's RBC Centura unit was eager to buy a bank or open branches in the Tampa Bay area and Republic Bank is an attractive target.

"I get a chuckle out of it," Klich said. "I think it's the same old story."

And as for the potential of a deal? "I've got nothing to report," he says.

_ JEFF HARRINGTON

Two paths of customer privacy

At first glance, Verizon Communications and Bright House Networks are responding similarly to subpoenas from the record industry demanding the identity of customers who allegedly shared copyrighted songs illegally over the Internet.

Both companies are complying with the subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America. Both say they are doing so reluctantly because of their commitment to customer privacy.

But Verizon has put its money where its principles are. After refusing to honor an RIAA subpoena last year, it was sued; the case remains tied up in the courts. Though Verizon is complying with the subpoenas in the meantime, spokesman Bob Elek said the New York company is ready to take its privacy battle to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

Bright House, a subsidiary of cable, newspaper and magazine company Advance/Newhouse Communications, has been less aggressive.

In an e-mail, spokeswoman Linda Chambers said that after "tough negotiations" the cable company convinced the RIAA to issue its subpoenas via federal court in Florida, rather than New York or Washington. That, she said, would make it more convenient for accused local customers to wage their own legal battle. "We take the privacy of our customers very seriously, and we go to great lengths to protect their privacy."

But Bright House won't go all the way to the courthouse itself.

"Others have challenged the issuing of these subpoenas," Chambers wrote, "and they have lost."

_ SCOTT BARANCIK

A solution for post-cinema showers

Muvico Theaters has started selling $1 ponchos at its guest services desks to moviegoers who come out of the dark only to discover it's pouring outside.

Few people carry an umbrella or raincoat into a movie theater these days. Yet in Florida, surprise rain storms are a frequent occurrence. So disposable ponchos made of plastic about the thickness of a garbage bag can work in a pinch. Like theme parks that sell thousands of ponchos any day it rains, Muvico plastered its logo on its ponchos.

The Fort Lauderdale movie chain got the idea from Ed Taylor, manager of the Muvico at St. Petersburg's BayWalk, where moviegoers face a two-block walk to get to the parking garage. It's the same problem at several Muvicos, including Centro Ybor in Tampa and Point Orlando.

"We're not making any money selling ponchos," said Jim Lee, the chain's marketing director. "The $1 charge just about covers our cost. We just think it's a great service."

With its initial order of 5,000 ponchos about gone, Muvico ordered 10,000 more.

_ MARK ALBRIGHT