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Opinions Go Up And Down On Balloonist

What doesn’t go up is crashing down on Roger Stadtmueller.

A small army of fuming customers who bought hot air balloon rides from the Spokane man’s company called to complain that they never got their trips or a refund. Many of them added that they were treated rudely.

I detailed the storm clouds swirling around American Hot Airlines in Sunday’s column and asked to hear from others who have had dealings with Stadtmueller.

Eight satisfied people have nothing but good things to say about their lighter-than-air adventures.

One Spokane man, Shannon Grady, actually got up on the first try in 1993 and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes.

But 28 others share the similarly angry sentiments of LaCrosse resident Cindy Andrus.

“I want to slam this guy,” says the woman, who bought five gift certificates for $395 last April as birthday presents for family members. Stadtmueller, she adds, canceled the flight four times and wouldn’t return telephone calls.

On Tuesday, Spokane attorney Mike Kinkley started a lawsuit against American Hot Airlines on behalf of a quadriplegic woman.

Lesley Miller paid $138 in 1995 for a balloon ride to celebrate her daughter’s 10th birthday. She says the flight was scrapped five minutes before lift-off. It was then rescheduled and canceled three more times before she gave up in disgust.

Stadtmueller “basically told me to kiss off” when she asked for her money back.

Kinkley had his own lawsuit going against Stadtmueller until late last week. The attorney and his wife say they had their balloon ride canceled four times.

Knowing a story was about to break, Stadtmueller settled quickly with Kinkley for $300. It didn’t take the air out of Kinkley’s legal interest.

“I had so much fun suing him the first time, I decided to do it again,” says the lawyer, who is considering a class-action lawsuit.

Stadtmueller defends his policies, saying that cancellations due to weather and flight conditions are an unfortunate part of ballooning.

He says all his gift certificates are clearly marked “non-refundable.” If people are patient they will eventually get off the ground.

The critics believe that’s a load of hot air.

They suspect Stadtmueller overbooks to keep his cash flow moving. After he has your money, they claim, your ride becomes an increasingly lower priority.

Just ask Moses Lake grocery store manager Roger Price’s saga. In 1993, Price bought two tickets for a $189 ride and champagne brunch.

Since then he says he has been put off a dozen times. Many of the cancellations were at the last-minute, after the couple drove to Spokane and paid for a motel room.

“I’ve spent well over $1,000 trying to get my wife her Christmas present,” laments Price. “This is getting to be so embarrassing.”

Not all the calls I received about Stadtmueller were from customers.

Wyn Birkenthal of Spokane Parks and Recreation says he and one of his staff members had “nose-to-nose confrontations” with Stadtmueller over using city park property as a launching pad. That’s against the law.

“He’s hot-headed and makes his own rules,” says Birkenthal.

City prosecutor Jared Garth called to point out that Stadtmueller was convicted of simple assault and fined $1,000 in District Court last July.

The jury trial was over a 1995 incident where a female UPS driver accused Stadtmueller of attacking her after she asked him to move his car from a commercial parking spot.

“It’s fun to make people happy,” said Stadtmueller during a recent interview.

“There’s a magic to ballooning. Until you experience a free flight, you never know” how great it can be.

Judging from the calls, there are a lot of people who sure wish they could find out.

DOUG NOTE: How much hyperbole and absurdity do I have to put into a column before some people get it? Gee, folks, the Diapers for David column was a joke. Get a life.

, DataTimes

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