How to complain about your airline service
Featuring AirSafe.com's online complaint form
Flying as an airline passenger is an often memorable experience, but there are times where the experience is memorable for all the wrong reasons: mechanical problems, poor service, bad food, lost luggage, or any of a number of other problems that result in a significant inconvenience or financial loss for the passenger. If you experience this kind of problem with your airline, you may want to deal with it by lodging a complaint with the airline or to one of the authorities that oversee air transportation.
Know the rules
When you purchase a plane ticket, you and the airline have entered into a contract that covers many different situations that you may face during a flight. Each airline has a specific set of guidelines that are used for situations such as flight delays and overbookings, as well as for lost or damaged luggage.
What you will face will depend on your airline airline's policies and where your are flying. For example, you can expect that transportation policies will be different between your cheap flight to Las Vegas and your overseas flight to London. The first flight might be with a discount airline that only provides the minimum required by the appropriate civil aviation regulations, while the airline behind the international flight may go well beyond the minimum requirements to keep a customer from considering a competing airline.
Dealing with a problem immediately
Whenever you can identify a problem on the spot, your best option will usually be to bring it to the airline's attention and give them a chance to resolve the issue. If you are at the airport, then contact the airline's customer service representatives, a manager, or some other employee who has the authority to immediately take care of your problem. If you are in flight, then contact the head flight attendant.
For example, if you are involuntarily bumped from your flight due to overbooking, you are typically eligible for some kind of compensation from the airline. If the airline makes an offer that is acceptable, take it. If not, make a counter offer. If you and the airline can't come to an agreement on the counter offer, then everyone is happy. If can't be resolved on the spot, you should start document your experience, gather relevant information from the airline, and prepare to file a formal complaint with the airline. If your complaint involves a US airline or involves an airline flight to or from the US, you can also use the AirSafe.com Online Complaint Form and AirSafe.com will forward your complaint to the US Department of Transportation.
Understand why you are complaining
After you have decided to gather information about your situation, but before you make that phone call or write that letter, you should take a bit of time and get to know a few basic things about your particular circumstances:
- Why you are complaining
- What situation caused you to complain and what people or organizations played a role in that situation
- What are the things that you want to happen that will address the complaint
- What should you reasonably expect as an outcome
It may seem obvious to you why you want to complain and what you want to have happen, but you have to be very specific in a complaint to give yourself the best chance of success. If you are not able to come up with enough relevant details, it would be difficult for even a well meaning airline to be able to respond appropriately. One must also be reasonable when it comes to the expected outcome of your complaint. You should only expect compensation if the airline is obligated to do so. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe every kind of situation that may obligate the airline to compensate you. However, following the advice in this article will likely put you in a position to know if your complaint may also lead to some kind of compensation.
Taking the time to assess your situation at the beginning will make the rest of the complaint process as smooth as possible. That complaint process can be roughly broken down into the following sets of tasks: writing down the facts of the situation, understanding whether you have a reason to expect a response or compensation as a result of your complaint, and filing the complaint in the places where it can do the most good.
Writing down the relevant details
If at all possible, you should take notes as soon as possible after you realize you are in a situation where you may want to complain to the airline. Much of the basic information, such as your flight number, or airport, is likely in your travel records. The most important details are the ones that directly relevant to your situation. If you were given substandard service by a flight attendant, that detail may be the name of a particular flight attendant. If your problem were a piece of checked luggage that was lost, then you would need any documentation that was associated with that lost bag.
One thing to remember is that you should stick to the factual, relevant, and verifiable information associated with your complaint. For example, claiming that a gate agent was, rude, and charged you unnecessarily for an extra checked bag may be factual and verifiable, but discussing the inappropriate and rude behavior is not relevant if your objective is to be compensated for an inappropriate baggage charge.
Your efforts to document what happen will help you to address two fundamental issues: what is your specific complaint and what do you expect the airline to do about it.
Understand your situation
When you purchase a ticket, you and the airline have entered into a contract that covers many different situations that you may face during a flight, including situations that are common sources of complaints such as cancelled fights and lost luggage. No matter what the source of your complaint may be, you should make an effort to get from your airline documentation that provides the details of the agreement that they have with you. This is typically available from the gate agent or customer service office at the airport. While it may not answer all of your questions, it may tell you key bits of information such as what specific aspects of the agreement may have not been met or the address where you may send your complaint.
Keep in mind that if your complaint involves a potential civil or criminal lawsuit, that you will likely have to get professional legal advice to go forward. If it does not rise to that level, then you will likely be able to deal directly with the airline.
Filing a formal complaint
If immediate relief is not possible, then the complaint will likely take days or weeks to resolve since you will likely be making a formal contact with the airline. Be sure to keep track of any notes that you have made, all of your travel documents (ticket receipts, baggage check stubs, boarding passes, etc.), as well as receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses that you incurred.
Limitations of baggage compensation
There are limits to your compensation when it comes to claims of lost, stolen, or damaged baggage. AirSafe.com's page on hazardous and prohibited items, offers advice on what is not allowed to be packed in your luggage, but also what you should always keep in carry-on baggage. Airlines and even insurance companies will likely not compensate you for valuables like jewelry, cash, precious metals, and financial documents that were in your checked baggage. Review AirSafe.com's Top 10 Baggage Tips for information that can help you avoid a baggage problem.
Writing tips for complaint letters
While you may contact one or more airline officials by phone, your chance of getting any kind of resolution goes way up if you rely on written communication as your primary means of dealing with the airline. The following guidelines will also help to get the message across more effectively:
- If you send either a letter or an email, make sure that your message includes all available options for contacting you (phone number, fax number, email address, physical mailing address, etc.)
- Limit your initial message to maximum one page (roughly 250 words)
- Include all of the relevant information that the airline would need to understand your problem.
- If you incurred expenses or monetary losses, state the amount that you expect to be reimbursed.
- Be specific about the outcome that you want (reimbursement, other compensation, letter of apology, etc.).
- Keep your letter businesslike in tone.
- Focus on the facts, and provide specific information like dates, names, and flight numbers.
- If necessary, send copies of tickets, receipts, or other documents to 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.
- Be reasonable in any demand that you may make.
If you follow these suggested guidelines, the airline will probably treat your complaint seriously. Your written communication with the airline will help the airline to determine what caused your problem, and may help the airline to prevent the same problems from happening to others.
Complaint filing options
If your complaint involved a US airline or a non-US airline operating in the United States, you may want to submit your complaint with the US Department of Transportation (DOT). You can file a formal complaint in one of the following ways:
- Fill out this online complaint form and have AirSafe.com evaluate your complaint. Depending on the details of your complaint, it may be forwarded to an appropriate public organization such as the NTSB, FAA, or DOT, or it may be published (with personal details removed) by AirSafe.com in FlightsGoneBad.com, in one of its other web sites, or in an AirSafe.com podcast.
- Call the Aviation Consumer Protection Division at 202-366-0511 to record your complaint.
- Submit your complaint to the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division online complaint form. Note that the DOT form requests personal information that the AirSafe.com form does not ask. Specifically, the DOT form asks whether you are a passenger, relative of a passenger, a lawyer acting on behalf of a client, or a travel agency. The AirSafe.com form makes no such distinctions and does not request this kind of personal information.
- Mail a written complaint to the following address:
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
US Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20590
These forwarded complaints are not used by the DOT to mediate individual disputes, but they are used by the DOT as a basis for rule making, legislation, and media reports. In one of the DOT reports, the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, major US airlines are ranked by several measures, including by the number of complaints. Normally, the DOT does not send any response to consumer complaint inputs. The DOT may recommend that a report be forwarded either to the FAA for aviation safety matters, or to the TSA for security issues.
When you want to point out a specific situation that you believe threatens the safety of passengers, crew, or other members of the public, it is important that you make the appropriate authority aware of this situation. In the United States, that authority is the Federal Aviation Administration.
For safety issues related to US airports, to any aircraft flying in the US, or to US registered aircraft flying anywhere in the world, contact the FAA at:
Assistant Administrator for System Safety ASY-100
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20591
You can also contact the FAA by phone at 866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322).
Security Complaints to the TSA
In the US, the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for screening passengers and baggage on US flights, including checked baggage.
If your complaint involves some part of the security process or if you suspect that a TSA representative is responsible for the loss or damage of an item, there are specific procedures that you will have to follow. The TSA Claim Form should have all the information that you need.
Once you have completed the forms, keep a copy for your records and mail the claim to the address indicated on the claim form. You may direct other complaints and comments to:
- TSA Contact Center at email@example.com
- Claims Management Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 571-227-1904
- Send written correspondence to:
TSA Claims Management Branch
601 South 12th St.
Arlington, VA 20598-6009
Learn from others
The AirSafe.com site FlightsGoneBad.com has a number of stories of passengers who complained about the service they receved. Sometimes, the airline was at fault, and sometimes it was the passenger who caused the problem. The site AirSafeNews.com has a variety of airline safety and security articles that you may find interesting as well. Take the time to read some of the articles so you can learn from their experience.
Complaints about European airlines
If you were flying two or from a country in the European Union (EU) and you were denied boarding, had your service downgraded, had your flight cancelled, or if you had a long flight delay, you may be eligible for significant compensation, or even a complete refund, from your airline. These EU compensation regulations apply to passengers who are departing from any airport situated in the EU, and to passengers arriving in the EU with an EU carrier or with a carrier from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland. Visit the compensation for flight delays and overbookings page for more information.
Cartoon by Andy Singer