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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Plane Sense: How to Complain to Airlines

In light of this week's United incident of very involuntary bumping (and dragging), it's never a bad idea to remind consumers how best to resolve a complaint with an airline when the problem isn't captured on video.
While researching the nooks and crannies of official rules regarding bumping, I came across a great deal of informative information (and if nothing else, information should be informative) at Transportation.gov, the website of the Department of Transportation.
Below is an edited section from the DOT missive called Fly Rights. My comments in blue.
Like other businesses, airlines have a lot of discretion in how they respond to problems (preferably, those responses will not resemble that of Oscar Munoz).  While you do have certain rights as a passenger, your demands for compensation will probably be subject to negotiation and the kind of action you get often depends in large part on the way you go about complaining. 
Start with the airline. Before you contact DOT for help with an air travel problem, you should give the airline a chance to resolve it. As a rule, airlines have trouble-shooters at the airports (they're usually called "Customer Service Representatives") who can take care of many problems on the spot.
If you can't resolve the problem at the airport and want to file a complaint, it's best to write or email the airline's consumer office at its corporate headquarters (and then, if those channels don't work, take to Twitter. See my additional comments near the end of this post). 
DOT requires most U.S. airlines to state on their websites how and where complaints can be submitted. Take notes at the time the incident occurred and jot down the names of the carrier employees with whom you dealt. Keep all of your travel documents (ticket or confirmation, baggage check stubs, boarding pass, etc.). Here are some helpful tips should you choose to write.
  • If you send a letter, type it and, if at all possible, limit it to two pages.
  • Include your daytime telephone number (with area code).
  • No matter how angry you might be, keep your letter or email businesslike in tone and don't exaggerate what happened. If the complaint sounds very vehement or sarcastic, you might wait a day and then consider revising it.
  • Describe what happened, and give dates, cities, and flight numbers or flight times.
  • Where possible, include copies, never the originals, of tickets and receipts or other documents that can back up your claim.
  • Include the names of any employees who were rude or made things worse, as well as anyone who might have been especially helpful.
  • Don't clutter your complaint with a litany of petty gripes that can obscure what you're really angry about.
  • Let the airline know if you've suffered any special inconvenience or monetary losses.
  • Say just what you expect the carrier to do to make amends. The airline needs to know what you want before it can decide what action to take.
  • Be reasonable. If your demands are way out of line, you are rude or sarcastic, or you use vulgar language, at best your letter might earn you a polite apology and a place in the airline's crank files.
The DOT Fly Rights complaint section does not mention Twitter or other forms of social media, so it is a bit dated. That said, I still think it's best to go through private channels of complaint first. If there is not a satisfactory response, then tweet-shaming can sometimes do the trick. 
We all know that Twitter loves snark. But save the snark in complaining on Twitter as a last ditch effort....and only if the error on the part of the airline (or other travel provider for that matter) is egregious. As the DOT suggests, try to be nice and businesslike first, even in a tweet.
Sometimes, though, snark is deserved. Take the case of the Icelandic car rental company that pinned us with damage charges, despite the fact that the driver who hit our (parked) car claimed responsibility in writing. After months emailing with no success, a few well-placed tweets did the trick and we got the company to refund our money. In such a case, Twitter-shaming was justifiable (IMHO). However, I will note that this tactic may not work with U.S. airlines. After all, as we can see from the United incident, airlines can be rather shameless. 

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