Image: Stranded travelers
Richard Drew  /  AP file
If air travelers are upset with the way they are treated or how airlines run their business, they should tell somebody. But flight attendant and travel columnist James Wysong says there are ways to effectively complain.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 2/20/2007 1:14:13 PM ET 2007-02-20T18:14:13

I have read several reports recently stating that airline complaints are decreasing . Are the airlines getting better at what they do, or are people just giving up? I mean, have you ever tried to figure out where to file a complaint? Sure, there may be an address in the in-flight magazine, sandwiched somewhere between the boring editorials and the ads for crappy gifts, but who takes those magazines home? I wonder how many people get steamed, write a letter, and then throw it away because they don’t know where to send it.

I am a flight attendant, and you might not expect me to encourage complaints against airlines, but I do. I am even going to give you some effective techniques for complaining, along with a list of addresses. Why? Because the airlines are losing touch with their employees. Union concerns, greed and distrust are rampant after all the bankruptcies, contract renegotiations and pension cuts. Airline executives will no longer listen to their frontline workers, so it is up to the customers to speak up and be heard.

But before you compose your letter of complaint, you must compose yourself. Here are some tips for effective complaining.

1. Be reasonable. Count to 10, put the shoe on the other foot, and consider whether your grievance is worth making a big fuss about. If it’s just a bruised ego or a misunderstanding, then let it go. Save the big guns for the real trouble.

2. Report rudeness. Despite what I just said, always report outright rudeness. An employee who is overly rude is probably a repeat offender. Enough complaint letters against that person will bring results.

3. Get the details. As soon as the incident occurs, write down as much information as you can. Names, date and time, flight numbers, baggage carousel numbers — anything you remember that can help you accurately describe the event in question.

4. Get a witness. If you are treated very badly and a neutral party sees it happen, get his or her name and number. Witness testimony carries a lot of weight when it comes to resolving a grievance.

5. Try for immediate resolution. If you have the time and the patience, try to get the problem fixed immediately. That’s your best shot at a satisfactory resolution. As time goes, the complaint loses its urgency for everyone involved.

6. Keep you temper. You might be furious, but yelling at me at the top of your lungs in flight is just wasted energy. Maybe I’ll agree with you, or maybe I’ll nod to placate you, or maybe I’ll just notice you have bad breath. In any case, yelling won’t improve your chances of a positive outcome, and it could get you in trouble. You don’t want to appear to threaten a flight attendant; that’s a violation of FAA rules.

7. Write a letter. If immediate resolution is not possible, the best chance of a satisfactory outcome is by writing a letter or e-mail.

8. Know the rules. The purchase of a ticket makes a contract between you and the airline. You have certain rights, but the airline is not responsible for everything that can go awry. For example: The airline is required to get you to your final destination, but if weather causes a delay, you might find yourself out of pocket for a hotel stay; because the delay is not the airline’s fault, it is not liable for your costs. So before you complain, read the fine print.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

9. Just the facts, Ma’am. You don’t want to write a letter that starts out, “Dear CEO, Your airline is crap.” While that may be true, the tone will produce very few good results.

10. Know what you want. Whether it be an apology, change of procedure, someone’s job or compensation, be specific about what action from the airline will satisfy you.

11. Don’t expect too much. Be reasonable with your demands. In fact, it may be best to expect nothing. That way, you will be pleasantly surprised if you get a reply, and if you don’t, you will have the satisfaction of having spoken your mind.

12. If all else fails, change airlines. If you don’t get the response you had hoped for or you are dissatisfied with the result, then change airlines. Having to suffer through flight after flight with an airline that you have come to hate will turn you into a sourpuss, and that’s bad for your mental health.

Passenger complaints can be very helpful to frontline employees, especially complaints about insufficient staffing or workers who look wracked by flu and seem like they should be in bed. Such complaints send a distinct message to management to stop overworking that one gate agent and punishing flight attendants who call in sick.

On the other side of the coin are compliments. You know, praise for that certain someone who saved your flight from being a total disaster. Just as the rude ones deserve reprimand, so do the helpful ones deserve commendation. I know they are getting harder and harder to find, but they are out there and they need an occasional pat on the back.

I once received a commendation letter remarking how funny I was and making particular mention of my ability to poke fun of airline idiocy. Sadly, it was taken as a letter of complaint and counted as a black mark in my personnel file. But it’s the thought that counts.

Now, as promised, here are some addresses and links:

If your complaint is safety related, you need to address your concern to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at:

Assistant Administrator for System Safety ASY-100
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20591

Slideshow: Around the World You can also contact the FAA by phone at 800-FAA-SURE (800-322-7873).

If it has to do with security, it should go to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by phone at the TSA Contact Center (866-289-9673) or by e-mail at

If your complaint is airline specific, you can go to the airline’s Web site and look hard under customer relations. Here are some of the major airlines’ links:

You can use those links for the compliments as well.

And always try to remember, the frontline workers don't write the lyrics, they just sing the song!

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments