Complaining to the Airlines

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How to Complain to the Airlines

Your flight was canceled… the airline lost your luggage… or you got hit with an undisclosed extra fee.Complaints about airlines have risen to record levels — most airlines receive hundreds of complaint letters every day.As a travel writer who travels more than 400,000 air miles a year, I have learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting airline complaints resolved.How to increase your odds…Be your own devil’s advocate. Ask yourself whether your complaint is justified. Did you really arrive at the airport in sufficient time to make your plane and check your bags? Was your plane delayed because of airline incompetence… or weather, over which the airline had no control? Did the airline really fail to disclose important information to you… or did you simply fail to read all the fare rules ahead of time? If you can’t honestly say that your complaint is justified, don’t waste your time complaining.

Deal with the situation quickly. As soon as a problem occurs, seek out the airline official with the highest seniority at your location. My never-fail rule: Never take a “no” from someone who is not empowered to give you a “yes.” Always ask to speak to the supervisor. When you speak with him/her, calmly explain your problem and ask for his help in solving it.

Write a letter. If talking with a supervisor fails to get you an immediate solution to your problem, then it’s letter-writing time. Send your letter certified mail, return receipt requested, to the chairman of the airline.

Always send a copy to the Consumer Affairs Office at Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, US Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590.

Be a good reporter. Writing a letter that simply expresses your displeasure with an airline or an individual incident isn’t enough. It’s the details that you include that often can make the difference. Include specific dates, flight numbers and times. It’s also important to get first and last names of the airline representatives with whom you interacted and, if appropriate, the names of any witnesses. Keep the letter short, and stick to the facts.

Be nice. Let the airline know that you intend to fly on its planes again and that you hope things will be better next time. If you’re a frequent-flier, be sure to include your account number — it stands to reason that the more you fly a particular airline, the more the airline wants to keep you happy.

Never say the word “never.” Threatening never to fly the airline again sends the message to that airline that it has already lost you as a customer, therefore it has no incentive to be nice to you.

Don’t send originals. Send photocopies, but make sure that you send everything that has a bearing on your complaint — boarding passes, ticket receipts, purchase receipts for lost items and, where appropriate, photos.

Understand the rules. For example, if an airline lost your bag, you can’t claim damages for lost jewelry, furs and negotiable financial documents (or cash). Each airline has a specific list of excluded items. If the airline lost your bag for more than 24 hours, there’s a reasonable expectation (if you’re not at your home airport) that you would need to buy some replacement clothes. But purchasing a $2,000 designer suit as “replacement” clothing won’t get you a reimbursement check for that amount from the airlines. Keep in mind that airlines have limited liability and compensate for lost items in luggage at their depreciated value, not what it would cost to buy them new.

Ask for what you want — but be realistic. If your plane was delayed, that probably doesn’t qualify you for a first class seat to Hong Kong.

Don’t be surprised if the airline doesn’t send you a check, but instead offers you vouchers for your “inconvenience,” usually dollar-value coupons that are good for discounts on a future flight on that airline. Read these vouchers carefully. Many have restrictions and expiration dates.

Write again. If you don’t hear back after three weeks or you get a form letter that doesn’t address your complaint, write to the chairman again — and again copy the Department of Transportation. As before, enclose copies of your tickets, boarding passes and any other written or photographic evidence you have to support your claim.

Last resort — Go to small-claims court. This is a lot easier than it might seem. You don’t need to hire a lawyer, and many states have increased the claim limits for filing cases in small-claims court (some states have increased the limit to $10,000 or more). Keep in mind that an airline ticket is a contract for service and that your argument probably will need to center around the airline’s failure to live up to that contract.

Source:  Peter Greenberg, known as the “Travel Detective.” He is travel editor for CBS News and editor of the travel Web site His latest book is The Complete Travel Detective Bible .

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