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The Ultimate Guide to Fighting (and Beating) the Airlines

SmarterTravel

A reader writes, “I traveled with American Airlines during the holiday season. Due to a canceled flight—first mechanical problems, then a crew shortage—I lost a full day of my vacation and had to make several phone calls to change schedules and accommodations. I have since written American once and emailed three times to get reimbursed, with no response at all. What do I need to do to get them to respond to my requests for reimbursements?”

How to submit a complaint to an airline depends on (1) what you ask for and (2) how much effort you want to put into the process. Presumably, the fact that you’re even considering a complaint means whatever happened was worse than the usual run-of-the-mill snags that occur so frequently on just about all airlines. If your complaint can’t pass the “is it really worth the hassle?” test, chalk your problem up to experience and get on with your life. But if you’re more steamed than that, give a bit of thought to the process before you begin your effort.

One caution: No matter how badly a trip turned out, if the airline’s fundamental problem was caused by bad weather, your complaint won’t go far. The airlines have wrapped themselves in all sorts of legal protections that leave them essentially unaccountable for weather-related difficulties.

What is your objective?

The first question you should always ask about an airline complaint is, “What result do I want?” Your desired outcome will probably fall into one of four categories:

  1. A simple apology—an admission by the airline that it dropped the ball.
  2. A black mark against the airline.
  3. A change in airline policy, procedures, or personnel.
  4. Compensation for monetary loss or inconvenience.

Let’s take a closer look at each of those possible goals.

Simple apology

These days, your chances of scoring a simple apology are reasonably good. Facing possible consumers’ rights legislation, all the big airlines adopted voluntary customer-care policies, posted on their websites, that cover most of the areas in which consumer conflicts might arise. As part of that process, those lines set up systems that pretty much guarantee at least some sort of timely response to any complaint.

The problem is, of course, that the initial response is likely to be a form letter, which may literally not ever have been seen by a living person. Also, those form letters usually take the tone “we’re sorry you were disappointed” rather than “we’re sorry we goofed,” leaving the clear implication that the fundamental problem is yours, not theirs.

Several years ago, I wrote United to point out an inaccurate statement on its website, and I got back—quite promptly—a courteous letter expressing regret that I had found my recent flight disappointing. So much for the personal touch.

If that sort of minimal response will satisfy you, go for it—you’ll very likely get one. You can find the correct address for each airline on its website (usually under either “contact us” or “customer care”). Also, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) posts consumer complaint addresses for most larger U.S. lines on its website.

Black mark

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the DOT compiles individual travelers’ complaints against U.S. airlines and issues monthly public complaint summaries. Those summaries get a lot of press and they’re used as input to numerous airline comparisons, including the annual “Airline Quality Rating” scores published by Nebraska and Wichita State universities. So even a simple one-line complaint to the DOT will take an airline’s final score down a notch. However, given the total number of complaints, the mathematical weight of your individual submission will be small. And, of course, nobody at DOT will ever address your specific case.

If you want to go that route, submit your complaint to:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street SW
Washington, D.C., 20590

Be brief and concise in the description of your problem and be sure to include your name, address, daytime phone number, name of the airline or company about which you are complaining, flight date, flight number, and origin and destination cities of your trip. The Division’s website provides lots of other useful information about airline complaints.

You can also complain to a Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, or another organization that monitors business behavior. You can write to one or more travel publications. But unless the airline is actually violating laws or regulations, the chances of getting any action are small.

You can score black marks in unofficial places, too. Several websites compile and publish emailed airline complaints, including complaints.com, consumeraffairs.com, my3cents.com, planetfeedback.com, and traveldirt.com. You can also find a bunch of blogs and other unofficial sites devoted to individual airlines, such as northworstair.org and untied.com. As far as I can tell, the main value of these sites is that they give you carte blanche to vent—I’ve never heard that any airline executive has paid them any attention whatsoever.

Real changes

The chances that your individual complaint will trigger a substantive change in any airline’s policies, procedures, or personnel are, in the mathematicians’ term, “vanishingly small.” You’re never likely to get a response saying, “You’re right; we agree that the fee you objected to is unreasonable; we’ve abolished it; here’s your refund check.” Or, “About that ticket agent that gave you such a hard time—we had a vice president take him behind a hangar and shoot him.”

Only rarely, and usually in cases with potential legal implications, does an airline react positively to outside criticism. Early on, while I was at Consumer Reports Travel Letter, we were covering changes to United’s frequent flyer program. United had just announced a tightening of its rules, limiting transfer of frequent flyer awards to other members of the traveler’s immediate family having the same surname. Of course, that meant a married woman could transfer her award to her husband’s mother, father, brother, or unmarried sister, but not to her own father, mother, brother, or sister—or to her husband’s married sister. We branded the policy as “blatantly sexist.” United changed it within days of publication.

That’s not to say your complaint will go totally unheeded. When an airline receives thousands of complaints about a given policy or procedure, it may at least take a second look. And if an individual employee generates dozens of named complaints, that employee will probably hear about it. Even if the employee hears about it, however, you won’t.

Compensation

Clearly, the most important complaints are those that involve financial loss or inconvenience serious enough to justify some form of compensation. Here are the key points to remember:

  1. Make sure you can document actual loss of money or major inconvenience on which you can place a rational price tag.
  2. Decide in advance what sort of compensation you’ll accept. Airlines are far more willing to part with vouchers for future travel or frequent flyer miles than to cut you a check. But if a check is the only way you’ll be satisfied, say so.
  3. Make it clear any vouchers you accept should not have such severe time deadlines or other limitations that you can’t use them.
  4. Make your base complaint simple and straightforward; zero in on one or two specific problems rather than a laundry list of woes. Back up claims with receipts or other evidence.
  5. Assume the first response to your complaint will be a brushoff, usually as a form letter. The real negotiations begin with your second letter, rejecting that first brushoff and reasserting your claim. Set a deadline for the airline’s second response.
  6. Consider having a lawyer write your second letter—and maybe send it to the airline’s general counsel rather than the consumer office.
  7. If an airline persists in stonewalling your legitimate complaint, don’t hesitate to take it to small claims court. Figure on a “three strikes” approach: If an airline doesn’t provide an adequate response to your second letter and then again to your third, the only way you’ll get its attention is to take it to court. As long as an airline has some sort of corporate presence in your home area—an airport station or sales office—you can use a local court. Keep in mind you generally can’t claim compensation for secondary damages, such as “I lost a $10 million contract because your late flight made me miss the bidders’ conference.” But extra travel and communications bills are fair game, as is reasonable compensation for gross inconvenience.

Make no mistake: Pursuing a monetary claim against an airline in these days of financial mega-losses will be a protracted siege, not a surgical strike. Don’t start if you aren’t willing to put up with delays, evasions, and denials. But if an airline really does owe you some compensation, go for it—and good luck!

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