Stain sticks at Hoover as flight farce drags on: Thousands are still fighting over free air tickets, says Andrew Bibby

IT IS almost exactly a year since William Foust, Hoover's managing director, and two other senior Hoover managers lost their jobs over the company's disastrous handling of its free flights sales promotion.

At the time, Hoover's US parent company, Maytag, pledged to sort out the chaos, which had left hundreds of thousands of Hoover customers without their promised tickets to Europe or America.

The final deadline for taking the flights is now approaching - the rules of the promotion were complex, but for many customers the last date for travel is the end of April.

However, Harry Cichy, who heads the Hoover Holiday Pressure Group, says many people are still waiting to have their flights arranged - and many more have given up trying. Mr Cichy bought a Hoover washing machine and drier to take advantage of the promotional offer. He never succeeded in getting his flights.

Pauline Keen and her 18-year-old son, Timothy, from Woking, Surrey, are looking forward to a holiday in New York in May, planned more than a year ago by Timothy when Hoover first announced its free US flights offer. The family already had a nearly-new vacuum cleaner but purchased another to qualify for the promotion.

However, their trip will not be courtesy of Hoover. After a series of letters and phone calls last year between the Keens and Hoover's agents, during which Mrs Keen was twice asked to forward photocopies of documentation that had apparently gone astray, the Keen family were finally told that they did not qualify.

At issue was whether the Keens had met the tight application deadline for the flight voucher after the purchase of their cleaner. 'We had no proof that we had, and so we had to give up,' said Mrs Keen. Their spare Hoover has now been sold, at a loss.

Steve and Mandy Holbrook, also from Woking, are among the lucky ones who have flown with Hoover tickets. They took their two children, Rosanna, 9, and Caroline, 6, on a fortnight's holiday to Florida in February.

However, Mr Holbrook is also dissatisfied with the procedure for obtaining flights. 'We first asked to go in October, and they said no. Then we asked for another date and they said no again,' he says. Eventually, they were offered a date in February.

'They sent us to Florida via Houston, and we had five hours waiting in Houston for the connecting flight. Going back, they sent us via New York, where we had another five hours' wait in the airport. But the kids loved the holiday.'

Hoover declines to say how many people have a right to free flights. But Mr Cichy believes that, taking both the US flights offer and the earlier European flights offer together, about 430,000 vouchers for air tickets have been issued by the company - each voucher for two free tickets. 'I would say that Hoover has flown about 100,000 people, or about 10 per cent of the total,' he says.

This week, a Hoover spokeswoman said that approaching 200,000 people had either already flown or had had flights booked, but was unable to offer more details.

Mr Cichy argues that Hoover and its agents are continuing to try to discourage take-up, describing one case of a couple living close to Gatwick whose flight left from Glasgow (the plane later stopped

en route at Manchester). 'They're trying to remove people's rights to tickets, they're trying to get rid of them,' he claims.

Hoover says that all voucher- holders will have been offered flights before the deadline expires, though not necessarily on flights of their choice.

''Obviously it's not a good thing if people are not happy, but people who get disappointed may have slightly unrealistic expectations. When people bought their products, they were told that flights would be subject to availability,' the spokeswoman said.

About 30 people are thought to have taken legal action for breach of contract against Hoover through the small claims court, although in the vast majority of cases their actions have failed, mainly on technical grounds. The Hoover Holiday Pressure Group is discussing with City solicitors Herbert Smith the possibility of a High Court action against Hoover. The group has about 3,000 members and is appealing for more dissatisfied customers to join.

Mr Cichy hopes to argue the group's case at the Iowa headquarters of Maytag next month. The group has been given four free air tickets for the trip there, although not by Hoover. 'A sympathetic local travel agent has donated them,' he says.

Information: Hoover Holiday Pressure Group, 25 Sundew Rd, Hemel Hempstead HP1 2PQ. Tel: 0442 60590.

(Photograph omitted)