12/11/96 -- 11:39 PM

Hoover Fiasco,0478

LONDON (AP) - Hoover is still having problems trying to sweep up the mess from a sales promotion that turned into a major blunder in corporate history.

Today, some four years after Hoover Europe offered two free overseas airline tickets to anybody in Britain or Ireland who bought a vacuum cleaner, unhappy customers who never took off are taking Hoover to court.

The promotion became a costly embarrassment for Hoover and its former corporate parent, Maytag Corp., after hundreds of thousands of people realized the obvious: Vacuum cleaners are cheaper than plane tickets.

Travel agents hired by Hoover were unable to keep up with the demand. The agents had been hoping to turn a profit with related car rentals and hotel bookings, but the free flight promotion failed to generate much in the way of such business.

``It's mind-blowing what went on in their brains at Hoover - if they had brains at all,'' said Denis Whalley, a Liverpool lawyer who spent two years working on a case for the customers.

After realizing the gravity of its error, Hoover first tried to deter people from flying by attaching conditions to the deal.

But many had bought the vacuum cleaners, for as little as 100 pounds ($165 at current exchange rates), only so they could fly. They refused to give up.

Hoover spent $72 million flying some 220,000 people and hoped to end the matter. But the fight continues, with a case brought on behalf of retired engineer Harry Bray to be heard today in St. Helens, outside Liverpool.

Bray wants two airline tickets, plus other vacation costs - as well as legal fees.

``There's about 365,000 people who haven't flown,'' Whalley said. ``I hope lots of other people who have been cheated by Hoover will come forward.''

Hoover declined comment, saying enough has been said about the case that made it a worldwide laughingstock.

``This promotion took place four years ago, so we are making no statement at all,'' Hoover spokeswoman Caroline Knight said from the company's offices in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

The previous fallout was devastating in a nation where Hoover vacuum cleaners are so widely used that many Britons refer to carpet-sweeping as ``hoovering.''

Hoover was hit by story after story in Britain's feisty newspapers. Three top European executives were fired.

Maytag, of Newton, Iowa, wound up writing off millions in losses. Maytag sold the Hoover Europe division to the Italian appliance maker Candy SpA. last year, but it kept the Hoover product line in North America.

Whalley said he believes Maytag is still liable for any costs from the free flights promotion. Maytag spokesman Jim Powell declined comment.

Copyright 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.