The Dos and Don'ts of Complaining about Air Travel

How to complain about air travel

Posted Nov 21, 2010

Over one and half million people will travel by air this Thanksgiving and many will encounter flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage and inedible meals, not to mention harried, stressed or impolite airline personnel. Knowing how to complain effectively when we experience something not-so-special in the air can mean the difference between getting a satisfying result and getting arrested.

Don't Catch the Spirit of irritability
It is important to remain calm in all complaint situations but none more so than airline travel. Simply put, in airports and especially in flight, anyone who is considered a security risk will be handled quickly and not necessarily gently by airport security or sky marshals on planes. Last year, a man traveling on Ryanair was arrested for complaining about his chicken sandwich. Apparently, the chicken was "too rubbery" and looked different than it did in the menu photo (like many of us, the sandwich probably used a photo that made it look better than it actually did in real life).

Keeping our temper under control can be challenging when say, a sullen check-in clerk informs us we got bumped from our flight. But while we have a right to be angry, the reality is they are less likely to help us if we curse, wag fingers or shoot spittle at them while yelling. Politely ask about their policy for the issue at hand or check for pointers about your specific situation. Smiling always helps too. Resolve problems while you are still at the airport if you can as the sooner you put them behind you, the sooner you can get back into a holiday frame of mind. You can also tweet your complaint or post it on Facebook, as many companies monitor such sites and might respond. If the situation cannot be resolved, document as much as you can (details, names, titles) and keep all paperwork.

They Love to Fly but it doesn't show at the airport
This holiday season too, many airports will be treating us to new Advanced Imaging Technology scanners which leave little to the imaging technician's imagination (note to TSA--how's about using them for cargo?). The devices have caused outcries from passengers and elected officials alike and even well informed bloggers. You can opt-out but before you happily hop over to the opt-out line, consider that opt-outers might be given an intrusive body pat down. And by intrusive I mean the kind of squeezing previously associated with mammograms and testicular cancer screenings.

Tensions are always high over peak travel times and I doubt there will be much holiday joy emanating from security lines, regardless of their screening methods. We tend to be much less annoyed in such situations if we anticipate them in advance. Therefore, be prepared for long lines at check-in, security and even boarding and prepare children as well, so they too can adjust their expectations accordingly. At best you'll all be pleasantly surprised.

Fly the (Un)Friendly Skies: Don't complain on the plane
Under the Patriot Act, more than 200 people have been convicted of felonies aboard commercial airliners, often times for simply raising their voices and using profanity with flight attendants. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York was almost arrested for cursing at a flight attendant who asked him to finish a phone call so their plane could depart. He later apologized for the incident. Even arguing with your spouse can be enough to divert the flight and land you in police custody. 

An important aspect of complaining effectively is deciding whether it is productive to do so at that time. Sure, you can speak up about your seat assignment or your 'vegetarian' meal including meatballs but often, there is little you or the flight crew can do about it. If so, document the incident as best you can and complain at a later time to the airline and/or to the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Keep to the facts and include all relevant detail and copies of any documentation (not originals). Be clear what you are asking for in terms of compensation or redress and have reasonable expectations. When possible, address your letter or email to a specific person such as the customer service executive for the airline.

Funniest Airline Complaint Letter
Humor can be a great tool if used correctly. A passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight in 2008 was so appalled by the meal he received he wrote to Sir Richard Branson (President of Virgin) and included pictures of the food he was served. After a polite and respectful opening, the passenger attached the following image:
"Look at this Richard. Just look at it," the passenger implored. "I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert? You don't get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it's next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That's got to be the clue hasn't it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they?"
The full letter is here. The passenger got a personal call of apology from Sir Richard Branson.

The most important takeaway from the man's letter is related to his attitude. Remember, the passenger with the rubbery chicken got arrested for voicing the very same complaint. Things frequently go wrong when we fly and how we deal with them can have a big impact on the outcome. But even more importantly, complaining ineffectively can sour our mood and dispositions for days. As one airline slogan claims, "Some people just know how to fly". By handling our air travel complaints effectively and keeping our frustrations in perspective-we can become one of them.

For more effective complaining tips visit my website.

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Copyright 2010 Guy Winch