TRADING standards officers in South Wales are to send a team of investigators into Hoover this morning to establish whether the company's controversial free flights offer breached the law.
The team of three senior inspectors from Mid Glamorgan County Council will have the power to examine documents and interview senior executives, including the three directors fired over the fiasco, which is set to lose Hoover at least pounds 20m. The investigation is likely to take at least two weeks.
Under the promotion customers buying Hoover appliances worth more than pounds 100 were entitled to apply for two free flights to the United States or Europe.
After a meeting last night with Michael Fallon, Hoover's company secretary, Steve Delaheye, the council's deputy chief trading standards officer, said: 'We have been invited in by Hoover. We need to establish whether it recklessly entered into this promotion. That means looking at the figures, the uptake they expected and how they planned to get people abroad. Our inspectors will stay as long as is necessary.'
He said that if Hoover had recklessly undertaken the promotion that would be an offence under the Trades Description Act. But he stressed that there was no proof of this so far.
Meanwhile, one of the sacked Hoover executives spoke out last night in defence of the controversial scheme, as it emerged that up to 250,000 people may be eligible for travel.
Brian Webb, dismissed as Hoover Europe's vice-president of marketing on Tuesday after 26 years' service, admitted the company had been overwhelmed by applicants entitled to two free flights in return for buying pounds 100 of Hoover products.
But he said that some of the blame for the chaos that has left thousands of people grounded was shared by a travel company handling the offer, media distortions and customers themselves. On Tuesday, the Maytag Corporation, Hoover's US parent, said in a statement that the travel operators retained for the promotion were unable to fulfil their contractual obligations in the light of demand.
Mr Webb, 54, who lives near Cowbridge, South Glamorgan, said: 'Some people were just stupid about it. I mean, people were booking weddings around their two free tickets. We also had people who were, quite frankly, trying to break the rules. I had one couple write to me complaining about the offer. They had been issued two free tickets to the destination they wanted on the date they wanted - and were complaining that the airport was not suitable.'
Mr Webb said the offer had been 'absolutely genuine' but because the media had got hold of a few minor problems and advertised them, the public was bombarded with incorrect stories. That resulted in Hoover being inundated with thousands of calls that it could not handle.
Airline sources say Hoover is in the market to buy up to 100,000 seats. It has approached British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines.
JSI Travel of Shaftesbury, Wiltshire, one of the agencies involved in issuing free tickets for Europe - the first of the two promotions launched last August - said it had sent out under 10,000 tickets before ceasing work for Hoover last December.
A partner in JSI Travel said it had received 600 complaints but this had to be set against the number eligible for flights and that could be up to 150,000. The low number of tickets actually issued was because there were 'fall-out' rates at every stage of the promotion.
Hoover had been aware from the earliest stages of the level of applicants, he said. 'From the day the promotion was launched we had 10 Hoover personnel working in our offices.'
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