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Airline Snafu? Get Customer Service Results

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Airport -  Busy check-in area (Photo: San Francisco International Airport)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 16, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, flight cancellation, flight delay, frequent flyer, Molly Feltner, upgrade.

With all the turbulence in the airline industry in recent years, almost every regular traveler has a story (or two or three) about a significant travel snafu and how airline staff did or didn't help them get out of it. We know you, our readers, are savvy travelers, so we thought it would be helpful to tap into your collective wisdom about the art of getting customer service results. Last month, we asked you to share customer service tactics that worked for you in three situations: dealing with delays and cancelations at the airport, getting upgrades at the airport, and obtaining compensation after a bad flight experience. Here's what you had to say:

Getting Help After a Flight Cancelation or Delay

What's the best way to get travel rebooked quickly after your initial flight gets canceled or severely delayed? Our readers' responses boiled down to two basic suggestions: Be proactive and be nice.

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  • Call the airline's reservation center from your cell phone while at the airport. The airline's desk at the terminal will be swamped. Always have the airline's phone number in your cell phone directory.
  • Once I know there is a problem I get on the phone and call my company's travel department. They can tell me what flights have available seats. Once I get to the front of the line I have options to offer the airline person.
  • Immediately phone the airline's ticketing number to get the next flight information to your destination.
  • I recently had a flight canceled after clearing security. There were long lines at the gate and customer service desk, so I went back out of security to the main terminal, got in the empty elite line, and received upgrade seats on [an earlier flight going to my destination] which had been delayed. I arrived home at my original scheduled time.
  • When waiting for your flight, sit or stand as near to the check-in desks as you can, so as to be able to hear phone and walkie-talkie conversations between the check-in agents and others. You will hear about delays and cancelations before they are announced over the public address and you will be able to get first in line.
  • If not happy with initial results ask to speak to a supervisor. I once received a full refund on a schedule change when the first person offered a $79 travel credit. Just allow [time] to do it.
  • Be nice!!!! No airline employee (nor any other company employee) will help you with your problems if you are rude, ill-mannered, nasty, and condescending to that person during the process. I am a frequent air traveler and I have experienced this often. The traveler who is polite will win over the nasty one every time!! Also, it's really helpful to verbally acknowledge to the employee your awareness of his/her difficult job and/or situation and perhaps compliment him/her on how well they are doing under pressure. Whether true or not, it makes them feel more kindly toward you and certainly causes them to be more apt to attempt to take care of you. I have seen this scenario play out over and over in airports over the world.
  • Be polite; keep in mind that the person you're speaking to is also under stress, did not cause your problem, and is just another worker like you. Smile, and keep a sense of humor. When I can get a rep to smile or laugh, I know I'm going to get the most help possible.
  • Be sure to sincerely thank the person for whatever help he or she was able to give you, even if they could not help. I have found saying "thank you" can often motivate a person to find some way to help you. I have been told there was nothing to be done, said thank you for trying, left the counter, then was called back with an offer for another flight on a competitor's airline.

Obtaining Upgrades at the Airport

While a few respondents said they think it's nearly impossible to get upgrades at the airport these days, we did get a few helpful upgrade hints, plus one suggestion for bribery.

  • Being first in line at the gate counter helps. Mention if you're celebrating your birthday or some other personal event. I regularly travel for a birthday holiday. I will request an upgrade and most times I will get it on at least one leg of the trip even though there are people higher up on the preferred frequent flyer status chain. Be polite, never demanding.
  • Sometimes pointing out (politely) your situation and asking for help will get you the upgrade over someone else. I recently was able to obtain an upgrade on an international flight for myself and my two grandchildren over some businessmen because I pointed out that I had children with me that needed rest (it was an overnight flight) and I (being older) could certainly manage better with them in first class. The flight attendant (older herself) said she certainly understood and gave the upgrades to me.
  • Always ask at the gate for information about buying an upgrade for cash or miles. I recently got upped on Alaska to first for $50.
  • Dress like a business person. My experience is that people in suits and ties are much more likely to get upgraded than casually dressed travelers.
  • I work for a popular casual full-service restaurant company, and I have found that giving the onboard service leader meal comp. cards, take-out menus, and a business card incentivized the staff to give me an upgrade.

Complaining After Bad Flight Experiences

Overall, respondents seemed to think that complaints filed after the fact are best done on paper, not email or over the phone. Sticking to the facts of a complaint rather than getting emotional and suggesting suitable compensation instead of letting the airline do it were also effective strategies for readers.

  • Write (do not email) a firm but polite letter documenting in detail the problem one experienced with supporting evidence (e.g., copies of mislabeled baggage tags). Request (do not demand) what you would accept as just compensation. Send it by registered mail to customer service.
  • If you fly often it is to your advantage to know the rules and complain only about what the airline can legitimately address. Always make a record of who, what, where, and when. Then write and email customer service and ask for some compensation, either cash or coupon. The rude flight attendant behavior can be addressed as long as you have facts, i.e., name of employee, where, when, etc. The loudmouth in the seat behind you whose laughing drove you nuts is not something the airline can address after the fact.
  • Persist and continue to state your complaint in a fact-based calm manner. Do NOT, over the phone, email, or any other communication, allow your complaint to descend into a name-calling rant. Complain only about the things the airline can or should do something about.
  • Fax a letter to the airline's central customer service. I find written letters, even when sent by fax, get a better response than a phone call.

Have any more suggestions for ways to get good customer service? Post your ideas below.

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