What Airlines Do When You Complain

March 17, 2021
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There are many ways to deal with the frustrations of travel. But more and more, it's becoming clear that good old-fashioned manners get you a lot further than complaining ever will.

Mike Wallace of San Francisco was so mad about recent travel experiences and a lack of response to his complaints that he searched the Internet for email addresses at UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and fired off an angry letter to more than 60 company officials. No response.

A second email to all the addresses he could find that used @united.com and @ual.com did get some attention. In all, after corresponding with United a dozen different times about being stranded at airport hotels on two different trips because of United flight problems, Mr. Wallace and his wife got some measure of satisfaction: business-class upgrades for some future trips and a $400 voucher.

“It's a series of systems, policies and nameless, faceless people in place to wear you out. Most people just give up, but I pursued and pursued and pursued before I finally got something,” said Mr. Wallace, an environmental consultant and elite-level United customer.

A United spokeswoman says the airline's goal is to “satisfy our customers the first time they call, write or email us.”

After the aggravation of mechanical breakdowns, computer meltdowns, schedule changes, lost luggage, missed connections and long telephone or airport waits, many customers fire off angry complaints to airlines—only to get less-than-satisfying responses.

But there are ways to get more redress, airlines and travel experts say.

Mistake #1: Telling an airline you'll never fly them again.

If you do this, then the airline no longer has an incentive to try to win back the customer, some airline officials say.

Mistake #2: Not being clear (and realistic) about what you want in compensation.

A one-hour delay won't get you anything, but if the airline canceled your flight because of a mechanical problem, forced you to spend the night in a cheap motel and miss your important morning meeting, then lost your bag the next day, you can ask for something meaningful, like a free ticket.

“Sorry doesn't cost the airline anything, and there's no reason for them to give you anything if you don't ask,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of business-travel site JoeSentMe.com.

Federal rules require airlines to reimburse customers for lost luggage and compensate them for bumping them from overbooked flights. After that, as with most any business, consumers are on their own seeking redress for bad service.

There are differences in how airlines handle customer complaints

United Airlines, for example, still have phone lines to field complaints. More than 200 United employees are trained to resolve problems and compensate passengers on the spot, a spokeswoman says. Some carriers still don't take complaints by telephone: mail, fax or email only. Once airlines respond to a written complaint, you typically can't talk to the customer service agent to appeal, either.

In general, most airlines pay more attention to complaints from top-tier frequent fliers, especially customers who spend lots of money each year with the airline. Airlines track customers not by miles flown but by dollars spent, and high-dollar customers get more generous compensation when they complain.

But most airlines say all complaints do get heard, many get investigated and all get a response of some sort, even if it's only a formulaic apology. Most carriers say they track complaints and compile monthly summary reports for executives, and many say they forward the complaint to the employee involved and supervisors. The most efficient way for them to field complaints is by email—letters get scanned electronically into computer systems, and airlines generally respond quicker to emails than to mailed letters.

Automation is changing the airline complaint business. Just about every carrier these days has systems that flag flights with lengthy airline-caused delays or nightmarish conditions and then generate letters of apology to passengers, some with offers of additional frequent-flier miles or vouchers offering discounts on future trips. So that apology you got for your last hellish flight? There's a good chance no human even laid eyes on it before it was sent off to you.

In Summary

Regardless of who you're flying with, the most reliable way to get great customer service is to ask for it.

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