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How to avoid delays, lost luggage, and more

Delays, lost baggage, and bad customer service can make even the most patient traveler see red, but they don’t have to leave you feeling blue over a ruined vacation. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), these are some of the biggest sources of frustration for airline passengers. But don’t let a bad experience get you hot under the collar; we’ve compiled a few tips to help you keep your cool, and tell you how to complain effectively if everything goes awry.

Flight problems include everything from cancellations to delays to missed connections. Any delay can cause a ripple effect in your whole itinerary, causing you to be late every step along the way. According to the DOT, a flight is considered to be “delayed” if it arrives at the gate 15 or more minutes after it’s scheduled to; in the last year, 15 to 20 percent of flights on the airlines the DOT tracks fell into that category.

It’s hard to avoid flight delays and missed connections, as you have no control over mechanical difficulties or weather problems that can affect whether your plane is on time. You can take steps to avoid delays, however, and it’s a good idea to call before you leave for the airport to find out when your plane is expected to depart.

Mishandled baggage includes luggage that has been damaged, misrouted, or had items stolen from it. According to the DOT, American, the largest U.S. airline, had the most mishandled bags in July, with over 36,000 lost luggage complaints. Like other airlines, American doesn’t guarantee when you’ll get your bag back. The airline’s customer service policy states that it will make “reasonable efforts” to return lost bags within 24 hours on domestic flights; bags lost internationally could take even longer.

If you don’t recover your bag, American will reimburse up to $2,500 per ticketed passenger for bags lost domestically, and up to $634.90 per bag on international flights. The airline excuses itself from liability on certain items, including cash, jewelry, and cameras. Check with your airline about its lost luggage policy to find out more.

Here’s how to minimize the impact of a lost bag, and increase the chances that it will be returned to you or that you’ll be suitably reimbursed:

  • Display your name, address, and telephone number both inside and outside your bag, and keep your bag unlocked.
  • Put items like medication, keys, valuables, and jewelry in your carry-on luggage, making sure to check the TSA’s prohibited and permitted items list.
  • Make a list of the items you’ve packed, along with the estimated value of each item.
  • Report missing, delayed, or damaged luggage before you leave the airport.

Reservations and ticketing complaints come from customers who have trouble making reservations—often due to busy signals, long waits on hold, or website problems—or getting their paper or electronic tickets once they’ve booked. The DOT received 49 complaints about domestic airlines in July, down from 90 complaints in the same month last year.

Ticketing woes will likely become less of a problem as airline booking technology and reservation systems become more advanced. Travelers who book online can still experience problems, but most likely you’ll be able to see your itinerary on your screen, so you can print it out. The best way to handle reservations and ticketing issues is to call the airline as soon as you experience a problem, and confirm your flight a few days beforehand to make sure your correct information is in the system.

Customer service complaints can stem from rude employees, as well as from inadequate meals or cabin services such as entertainment. July customer service complaints for U.S. airlines were down by almost 70 percent from last year. But it’s not clear whether that means more travelers are having a positive flying experience. Is airline service actually improving, or are passengers now used to no-frills travel, with fewer free meals and drinks?

There’s not much you can do about rude employees; just remember that you won’t get anything out of being rude yourself and simply ask to speak to a supervisor. If that’s not an option, get the employee’s name and report him or her to your airline. When it comes to amenities, keep in mind that service has its price, and that sometimes low fares mean fewer perks.

Bumping can be a frustrating experience for air travelers. The most common reason for being bumped from a flight is the airlines’ tendency to oversell their seats, but the likelihood of being involuntarily bumped is low. AirTran had the highest incidence of involuntarily bumped passengers during the first half of this year, but only fewer than three passengers were bumped for every 10,000 people transported by the airline.

Bumping doesn’t have to be a bad experience, especially if you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination. You can often walk away with free air travel and other perks if you’re willing to give up your seat.

How to make a complaint

If you need to make a complaint, your best bet is to do it while you’re still at the airport. The problem will be fresh in your mind, and you’ll also have all of the necessary documentation, including your flight number or the name of the relevant airline employee.

If the personal approach isn’t possible, call your airline and make sure you have your ticket handy. Even if no one at the airline can resolve your concern over the phone, you’ll at least be able to get an address to which you can send a formal complaint. You may want to consider writing to your airline anyway, since written complaints tend to be given more weight, and you’ll have a paper trail of the correspondence between you and the company.

In the event that your airline isn’t able to resolve the issue adequately, you can contact the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD). The ACPD operates a complaint handling system for consumers with air travel problems, and will forward your complaint to the airline if it’s considered to be valid. If you call the ACPD and leave a message, don’t expect a response, but letters and e-mails will be acknowledged.

The information you’ll need when you call, write, or e-mail the ACPD includes:

  • Your name and address
  • A daytime phone number, including area code
  • The name of the airline about which you are complaining
  • The date, flight number, and cities involved in your trip

If you write, you should also send a copy of your airline ticket, as well as copies of any correspondence that has occurred between you and your airline. You can contact the ACPD at the following address:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Phone: 202-366-2220

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