Hot Air Balloon Flight / Failure to provide service
My wife and I purchased two tickets for a hot air balloon ride at a total cost of $422. Hot Air Ballooning is highly dependent on the weather. Flying conditions must be just right so we expected that we may have to reschedule the flight a couple of times. Customers are told to call a telephone number to check a recorded message for the status of their flight on their scheduled day. On our third attempt the flight was cleared to fly and the recorded message instructed us to meet at the established pick-up point in the parking lot of East Towne Mall in Madison, Wisconsin. There were several other people that showed up who were also booked for that day and had heard the recorded message that the flight was cleared to fly. The plan was for the balloon crew to pick us up and take us all to the launch site in the company van with the balloon in tow on a trailer.
After waiting for 30 minutes I, and several other people there, called the office. The woman that answered the phone didn't know that the flight had been cleared to fly. I alerted her that the recorded message on their status telephone line indicated it was cleared to fly. She told me she would try and call the pilot and that I should call her back in 5 minutes. So I did. On the call back she told me that the flight had been cancelled due to weather; though it was a gorgeous day with light winds which to me seemed perfect for ballooning. She did say that she would send the pilot out to the pick-up point to explain why the flight has been cancelled. We waited an additional 45 minutes and the pilot never showed up. When I called back to the office a third time I asked for the manager. She claimed that she did not know her manager's name. Then I asked how can I make a complaint and get a refund. She said that there was nothing she could do to help me because, and to use her words, "I just work here." The next day the recorded message still indicated that our flight was the prior day was cleared to fly.
After being stood-up and after the way we were treated on the phone by their staff my wife and I decided that we were no longer interested in doing business with Great American Balloon Company. I e-mailed the only e-mail address I could find for them and asked for a refund. Two weeks went by and there was no reply. I sent a polite message to follow up suggesting that perhaps they overlooked my first e-mail message. I then received a reply from a person using the name of "Ron Lake" who said that he would get back to me after he talked to the pilot. I never received another e-mail message from him. About a month or so later I sent a letter explaining our experience and asking for a refund. It is reasonable that most companies will honor a refund when a customer is dissatisfied and has not yet received the service that was purchased; not GABC. In the letter I indicated that if a refund was not honored that I would first file a complaint with the better business bureau, then next with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and lastly I would resort to legal action, but hoped that GABC would issue the refund of their own volition in the interest of providing good customer service. Several months went by with no response. I filed the complaint with the BBB. The BBB contacted GABC several times before they finally responded. Next I filed the complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and I also filed a complaint that same day with the Illinois Attorney General's Office -- Division of Consumer Protection. Both agencies contacted GABC and months went by before there was a response. What followed was a series of letters from both sides. In all cases GABC was very slow to respond, and their letters were little more than poorly written gibberish. In one of my rebuttal letters routed via the Attorney General's Office I commented how GABC to date had provided no service at all. What follows is a quote from GABC's response, "Mr. Dan has mentioned that we have provided him with NO SERVICE at all. I would like to ask Mr. Dan is scheduling not a part of service that was provided to him. Can Mr. Dan fly without scheduling a flight?" --- Really? Apparently GABC would have us believe that our $422 was for a very expensive phone call to schedule the flight. I thought we were purchasing a hot air balloon ride.
I began looking for other people that have had negative experiences with GABC. I found fourteen. Some people have waited between three to five years for a hot air balloon flight, and the company has cancelled their flights as many as 15 to 20 times. One person in the group tracked Great American Balloon Company's flight status telephone recording for 72 days during the summer of 2007. Reportedly for 72 days in a row both the morning and evening flights were cancelled due to weather. WKOW TV ran a story on their 10 pm newscast on 11/24/09 about GABC. They discovered that the business address listed on GABC's letterhead is actually a vacant storefront and the only business that was recently there was a UPS store. They tracked the flight status telephone recording for 30 days in the fall of 2009. Every flight morning and evening was cancelled due to weather. I know the weather is unpredictable during the summer and early fall in the Midwest but, 72 days in a row, and a second block of 30 days in a row seems unlikely at best. Great American Balloon Company has no physical location in Wisconsin. They operate under the following names: Windy City Balloon Port, Sky Rides Balloons, Sun Bird Balloons, and Token Creek Hot Air Balloon Company; however it is very important to note that they do not have a location in Token Creek, WI. I have come to know the owner of a different hot air ballooning company that is located in Token Creek, WI and he has no affiliation with Great American Balloon Company at all. There was a third company in Token Creek prior to all of this that did fly regularly. It is my understanding that sometime around the late 90's GABC bought the Token Creek Hot Air Balloon Company. Very soon after that the complaints against them took off like wildfire. The owner of the office building allegedly evicted Great American Balloon Company. The hot air ballooning company that is actually located in Token Creek WI today has no affiliation with GABC. On the day that our flight was cancelled by GABC, the owner of this other company reported that he flew all of his flights, that it was a beautiful day for flying, and had no idea why GABC would have cancelled for "weather." We eventually bought tickets with this other company and were up in the air within two weeks. As for GABC it has been over two and a half years, and still no flight. This issue has been coverevd by WKOW-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, TMJ4-TV in Milwaukee Wisconsin, The Chicago Tribune in Chicago Illinois, and the Isthmus newspaper in Madison Wisconsin.
The group of 14 is now in the process of taking legal action. There are several Wisconsin statutes that are applicable to what has gone on here. We have retained an attorney and will be filing the case very soon. If you have purchased a flight from Great American Balloon Company and have not been able to get your flight within a reasonable amount of time then please contact me. There is a second group taking legal action in Illinois very soon too. Regardless of where you live, and even if you don't want to join the case, perhaps you could be a witness.
As for those of you who are just researching Great American Balloon Company and considering purchasing a ticket: I do not recommend it. It is unlikely that you will get your flight within a reasonable amount of time, if at all. I can put you in touch with a different hot air ballooning company that actually does fly most of its flights. Please free to contact me. After turning our backs on GABC, we purchased tickets with a different company and had a wonderful time. Beware of Great American Balloon Company.