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What to do when complaining to an airline

Given that airlines rank below even the IRS in customer satisfaction, it’s no surprise that you sometimes feel the urge to complain about treatment you received—or didn’t receive—from an airline. Many of you ask me about how to proceed. Although I’ve covered the complaint process in the past, some of you still aren’t asking the right questions. And if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answers. Here are some tips that may help you focus your effort more effectively.

Don’t expect a quick and easy resolution of your complaint, at least if you want something beyond a form-letter response.

Do decide if your complaint is worth the effort it will take—which can be considerable—and if so, settle in for an extended process.

Don’t scatter your complaint around to a bunch of suppliers who may have been involved in your problem—that’s asking for each one to blame the “other guy.”

Do decide which provider was most responsible and concentrate your efforts there.

Don’t obsess about a relatively trivial problem or disappointment. Chances are you’ll waste a lot of time without ever being satisfied. It it’s not worth a concrete settlement, register your dissatisfaction, then get on with your life.

Do write one letter to the airline, letting it know you’re dissatisfied and why, but that you don’t intend to pursue it any further. Then, submit a complaint to the Department of Transportation. You won’t get you any further action but your complaint will score against the airline in the DOT statistics.

Don’t expect an apology in the sense of “yes, we goofed.” Lawyers don’t like their clients’ admitting anything. Instead, the airline will say it’s sorry you didn’t enjoy your flight. Don’t ask “why” the airline did or did not do something because you’ll never get the real story, even if there is one.

Do translate your complaint into some concrete request.

Don’t expect some sort of punishment for an agent or attendant who may have mistreated you. Even if an airline does take some personnel action, you’ll never hear about it.

Do ask for something the airline can actually give you.

Don’t send an extended chronicle full of “and then…” ramblings. Those turn off even a sympathetic recipient.

Do focus on the one or two events that were at the core of your problem and document them in one page. Type it; handwritten scrawls erect an immediate barrier. Document your losses and inconveniences.

Don’t go to great lengths to get your complaint in the hands of the airline’s president or some other executive. No matter what you try—return receipt mail, express delivery, or carrier pigeon—the top executive will never see your complaint, and it will still wind up at the consumer affairs office.

Do send your complaint to the consumer affairs office.

Don’t fill your complaint with bluster about how important you are or how many people you can convince “never to fly your lousy airline” again. They’ve heard this all before and it doesn’t do a thing, one way or another, for their bottom lines.

Do keep your complaint specific and, if not cordial, at least businesslike.

Don’t ask an airline for a “fair” settlement or resolution—that’s an invitation to nothing more than a form letter.

Do determine your specific losses, monetary or otherwise. You, not the airline, should decide what’s “fair.” Ask for a concrete settlement, and specify the amount: a dollar refund or payment, frequent flyer miles, a voucher for future travel or a “free” trip, an upgrade, or whatever. You may have to settle for less, but you’ll never get anything unless you start the negotiation by setting a price.

Don’t drop copies of your first letter of complaint on all major population centers. Specifically, don’t send copies to newspapers, magazines, the BBB, consumer advocates, or anyone else.

Do give the line a chance to respond first. Calling for help comes later.

Don’t expect an airline’s first response to be anything more than a form letter. In fact, don’t be surprised if the form letter demonstrates that nobody actually read your initial complaint. When I once sent a message to United about a problem on its website, the line responded that it was sorry I didn’t enjoy my flight.

Don’t give up when the line’s first response is a brush-off or a meaningless “sorry” response.

Do send the second letter, showing how the first response—or initial offer, if you’re lucky enough to get one—is inadequate. Re-state your claim and indicate you intend to pursue it further if the airline doesn’t provide an adequate response, and set a time limit.

Don’t fool around with endless back-and-forth. If the airline’s response to your second letter—or an airline’s initial settlement offer—is inadequate, don’t keep trying. Once you have the first real answer, that’s probably all you’ll ever get without escalating the disagreement.

Do call for outside help:

  • Log onto one or more of the airline complaint websites. They may or may not move your complaint forward, but they’re worth a try.
  • Try to interest an ombudsman in your case. The best known are Condé Nast Traveler (Ombudsman, Condé Nast Traveler, 4 Times Square, New York, NY, 10036) and Chris Elliott, but your local newspaper, TV station, and radio station may provide similar services. The upside is that they almost always get a good settlement, even after the airline has stonewalled your efforts. The downside is that these folks can take on only a very small percentage of the requests they receive.
  • File a report with the BBB for the supplier’s area.
  • If you suspect criminal behavior, contact the DOT—but only for truly criminal actions, not just a run-of-the-mill glitch.
  • Don’t give up if you can’t get help.

    Do get a lawyer or go to court. If your complaint is worth pursuing this far, it’s probably worth legal action—small claims or a full court, depending on the amount of money involved.

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