Peter Chapman (in white) is general manager of Alaska Auto Rental in Fairbanks.

Peter Chapman (in white) is general manager of Alaska Auto Rental in Fairbanks.

“I was charged $125 for an automobile that was left clean,” the voice mail starts. “I’m a disabled man with a $50,000 service dog. Never, ever, ever have I left dog hair in a car to warrant a $125 cleaning fee. It’s against the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The caller goes on to explain that he will call the credit card company to stop payment for the rental and inform the rental company’s chamber of commerce to explain how he was unfairly charged. “It’s not cool, it’s not fair. It’s unwarranted. You took advantage of me,” he concludes.

Immediate Action

For Peter Chapman, general manager of Alaska Auto Rental in Fairbanks, it was a fine way to start his Fourth of July holiday weekend. But he knew he needed to deal with this as quickly as possible.

So Chapman crafted a carefully worded email to the renter, with photos attached revealing the extent of the dog hair covering the vehicle’s upholstery and interior. He reminded the renter that upon signing the rental contract, he would be subject to cleaning charges for vehicles returned substantially less than clean.

For the cost to clean the car, Chapman informed the customer that he was charged $125, which is half off of the standard $250 charge for a full auto detail.

In the email, Chapman wrote that his company does not exclude service animals from its rental units, nor does it impose any extra deposits or surcharges for service animals.

He corrected the renter on his interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which permits car rental companies to charge a renter with a service dog for the cost of repairing or cleaning a rental car in the same way non-disabled renters with dogs would be charged.

Further, Chapman let the renter know that his threats to contest the actual car rental bill — not in dispute — were unfounded.

Nonetheless, Chapman made the decision to reverse the credit card charge for $125. “A refund was approved solely in an effort to provide the best possible customer service and resolution of your issue, in spite of the fact that your cleaning charge was valid,” Chapman wrote.

The Renter Responds

Upon seeing the emailed photos, the renter, Davis Hawn, wrote a follow-up email to Chapman. “Please accept my apologies and know that no charges have been questioned or commentary posted,” Hawn wrote.

Hawn explained further that he had not personally returned the car — his friends did. On the last day of his Alaska trip, a bridge flooded, creating a change of plans and a stressful return to the airport. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” Hawn wrote. “To err is human. I will speak to my friends.”

Chapman responded by thanking Hawn for the apology, saying that his travel circumstances helped make sense of the condition of the vehicle and that he would be happy to do business with him again.

To that, Hawn replied:

“You sir, are a prince amongst men. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever dream a vehicle could have been turned in like that and I [was] reassured it was personally cleaned. [Let me] note that my service dog doesn’t shed so profusely normally. He was and is still recovering from Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite. He came within 24 hours of death and stumped the medical professionals. His hair loss is a side effect and not a usual occurrence.

I have learned from this experience and [I’m] also humbled. I did not handle it properly, presumed, and succumbed to stress. 

Thanks, Peter. I owe you a dinner as well as my apology.”

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Davis Hawn's assistance dog Booster travels the world with Hawn to help demonstrate that dogs can aid people with physical and emotional disabilities. Here, Booster interacts with HIV-infected children in a Thai orphanage.

Davis Hawn's assistance dog Booster travels the world with Hawn to help demonstrate that dogs can aid people with physical and emotional disabilities. Here, Booster interacts with HIV-infected children in a Thai orphanage.

A Teachable Moment

Chapman contacted Auto Rental News regarding this story, offering it as a teachable moment on customer service. Chapman also facilitated contact between ARN and Davis Hawn, who contacted the magazine via email.

From Hawn’s point of view, it’s a teachable moment, as well. Hawn suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 10 years ago, Hawn was assaulted, and his truck was stolen. When his truck was recovered, a Labrador Retriever puppy was inside. Thus began the journey of Hawn and Booster.

Hawn eventually trained Booster to be a service dog and then went through a program to be able to train other dogs for service, with Booster as his demo dog.

Hawn went on to get a master’s degree from Bergin University of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, Calif. As part of his thesis, he created a program that he brought to Cuba to demonstrate that dogs can help people with physical and emotional disabilities.

Reaching out to ARN, Hawn made sure to clear up any miscommunication regarding ADA rules and service dogs, thinking his car was returned clean. “I would never propose that you can destroy property or dirty it and not be held accountable,” he writes.

Traveling with a service dog presents a peculiar set of challenges, he writes. “As a disabled individual partnered with a service dog, I am always under scrutiny. I want to set the bar for exemplary standards of public trust — throughout the world.”

“I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have been denied access to a hotel room, restaurant or place of public accommodation. I have been told, ‘We don’t rent cars to people with dogs.’ I have been asked to sign off on tickets with cleaning fees attached when indeed the car was spotless.”

Hawn recounts a car rental situation in San Francisco. “I pulled in the return lane at the airport,” Hawn writes, “[and] the employee came toward the car as I was exiting with my service dog. ‘Oh, you have a dog,’ [he said]. ‘We have to charge you a cleaning fee.’ He wasn’t even within 20 feet of the car before he threatened me with a substantial cleaning fee.”

A shouting match ensued. “Confrontation for those [with PTSD] such as myself triggers an emotional response that is often exaggerated,” Hawn writes. “‘We often feel embarrassed after becoming grounded once again. Often, we do not even remember the episode or the severity. To lessen the possibility of confrontation is important.”

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A Little Understanding

Hawn contends that understanding the needs of those with assistance dogs will go a long way to help moderate issues when interacting with retail businesses.

“Assistance dogs make life possible for the disabled,” he writes. “They are an extension of one’s body. They are a necessity, not an option. They may shed a hair or chew an item, but it’s a small price to pay in consideration of their life-saving abilities. In this case, the seemingly negative event is in reality a positive one due to Peter Chapman’s compassion.”

From Chapman’s perspective, “All too often, customers who express dissatisfaction with their rental charges can be extremely difficult to communicate with effectively,” he writes. “In this situation, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive and thoughtful response from Mr. Hawn.

“For me, this experience has highlighted the importance that we address customer concerns with timely, thoughtful, thorough and well-documented communication. At times this can be a time-consuming process, but it is an essential component of providing the best possible customer service.”

And simply knowing the rules is a must.

“Understanding the requirements of the ADA — that you can’t enforce a mandatory deposit for service animals — as well as the needs of disabled customers will help car rental operators treat the disabled customer with compassion and avoid unnecessary confrontation,” says Leslie Pujo of LaPlaca Pujo, PC.

Managing Service Animals in Rental Cars

Provided by Leslie Pujo of LaPlaca Pujo, PC, this summarizes and interprets the Americans with Disabilities Act as it relates to service dogs and rental cars.

If a disabled customer uses a service animal, the rental company must make certain accommodations. A “service animal” is a dog that is trained to perform tasks on behalf of persons with disabilities. If a customer has a service animal, the following rules apply:

Rental company employees may only ask two questions of the renter: Is the dog a service animal? What service does the dog perform? Employees may not request documentation to prove that the animal is a service animal or require a demonstration of the dog’s services.

Allergies or fear of animals are not reasons to deny the customer’s access to the rental company office or refuse a rental.

A rental company may not ask a customer to remove a service animal from the premises, unless the animal is out of control or not housebroken.

If the rental company normally charges a pet deposit, that deposit must be waived for service animals.
The rental company may charge the renter for damage to the rental agency or rental vehicle caused by the service animal.

To learn more on the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit www.ada.gov. Type “service animals” in the website’s search function for more information.

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