How to Properly Complain to an Airline

While complaining to an airline may be easy, I personally think there’s an art to it that should be noted. It’s important to understand that there are two ways and each, I believe have a different outcome, based on what you desire:

  • If you’re trying to get compensation for your issue, call the airline’s customer service department. Why? Hearing someone else’s voice and their tone and talk allow the agent to sympathize with you. If they’re upset for you, you’re likely to receive compensation.
  • If you’re trying to have the issue rectified in the future and forwarded to management, write the airline’s customer service department. Why? Written comments can be directly sent to upper management, or officials in charge of the problem. Plus, it creates a written paper trail, and if the airline see’s multiple complaints of the same nature, it indicates a recurring issue, and a possible need for fixing.

While these aren’t foolproof methods, in my experience, each method has a slightly different outcome.

When complaining, it’s important not to “vomit” and yell. The person on the other end of your communication is human, just like you, and in many instances, has no direct control over the matter, but is simply passing it along to someone who does.

Explain the problem – Too often, folks don’t explain the actual issue that occurred. Sure, the food was terrible, but what was terrible about it? Was something undercooked, too salty, not hot enough? If the issue isn’t documented properly, there’s no chance at it getting fixed in the future.

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Request a solution – It can’t hurt to request what you want as compensation, though keep in mind, you’re not guaranteed to receive that in return. Often, airlines have some sort of matrix or policy that dictates what they’l give you in return. That said, I think it’s fair to state what you’re requesting, for full an open disclosure.

Be yourself – While form letters are easy to copy and paste, I don’t think they get the full gravity of the situation across to the person reading your inquiry. If they receive consistent copy and paste replies, they’ll begin to ignore the larger message, so I think it’s important to write a personal message, even if not as detailed or wordy as a form letter.

Give praise – If something went right, say it. I can’t imagine that everything on your flight went poorly, and it’s worth mentioning the great things that happened, the staff that assisted you, or processes you were impressed with. Mentioning good with the bad helps your story, without seeming that you’re a pest in complaining.

Don’t be pompous – Yes, your status matters, but by repeating your Diamond level, Executive Platinum tier, or credit card membership a million times in your letter, you start to sound like you’re “above the law.” In my suggestion, it’s worth maybe stating once at the beginning, and once in your signature. So, as an example, “My name is Joe Smith and I am a Diamond member with your airline, and recently flew on flight XYZ from YYY to ZZZ…”  Don’t repeat it to death.

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You’re much better off getting the results you want when you’re calm, cool and collected. If on the phone, make small talk with the agent. Maybe crack a joke or two, or comment on the city you visited. You’ll be surprised at the positive results you’ll get.

What are your tips for complaining to an airline?

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  1. Max Factor says

    With 21 years on the other end of the phone when you want to speak to “supervisor”, I would emphasize the “Vomit” mouth comment as well as the “we are human too” reference. If you think by repeating your elite status numerous times or how you’re going to take your business elsewhere in a threatening manner will help me make my decision quicker, you’d be right. I’m certain however it won’t be what you expected.Take ownership if you made a mistake. If you are seriously unable to afford the charge to change your ticket and its an emergency of some sort, please say that. We don’t wake up and go to work thinking of how we can ruin your trip or drain your rent money. If we can help we will. If we can’t then please understand, its not personal.
    Thanks for writing a good article! We appreciate it!

  2. says

    Being nice to airline agents is always a good policy: you win many more friends (and compensation) with honey than with vinegar. A few years back, I was stuck at ORD on DL flying to LGA-BOS when weather had caused every flight to the east coast to be canceled (an impenetrable line of thunderstorms stretched from YUL-ATL). As others yelled, screamed and stomped their feet, I looked up an alternate itinerary via MSP (staying with a friend there) and approached the agent, commiserated with her, and asked if she could accommodate my itinerary.

    She could (it got her another seat out on the early flight to DTW the next morning), and I asked about the gentleman I saw yelling at her. “Oh, he’s in a middle seat tomorrow afternoon.” I was in first class the next morning. I wrote to Delta to commend their staff in this tricky situation and make a suggestion (allow IROPS from ORD-MSP-BOS to be automatically booked) and they put 25,000 miles in my account.

    I was flying OSL-EWR-BOS on UA this winter and the agent refused to check a ski bag and boot bag as one item, insisting on a $100 fee. I didn’t raise my voice, but pulled up company policy on their website on my phone and read it to them. It took several tries, but I was finally able to have an agent acquiesce and take my bags for the appropriate charge ($0). A rather curt (but brief: no need to repeat yourself) email to the company was sent asking that they make sure their staff in OSL was properly trained regarding their policies.

    It is never worth raising your voice, especially to start. You’re dealing with a human being, and someone who can do a lot to make problems go away.

  3. Scott Feldman says

    Seconded and thirded: Don’t be a schmuck. Acknowledge to the person you’re addressing that you realize they aren’t personally responsible and, to the extent you find your tone veering toward frustration, reiterate that this tone isn’t directed at him or her. Also, ask questions in a respectful way: “What do you think is a reasonable amount of time for a passenger to wait for an update on his lost baggage?”

  4. Brad says

    I agree with your advice. I tried to speak to American Airlines customer services about an issue I had but was told that there was no individual with whom I could speak. I had to use the AA feedback tool which has a 1000 character limit, far too little for a complex issue. So much for your advice.

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