The flight was overbooked and you were bumped. Now your luggage has gone missing and it could be anywhere from Tulsa to Tokyo to Timbuktu. The reservations agent was lost in space, the security screeners made you take off your shoes three times, and the flight attendant dropped a hot, gloppy meal on you while joking around with a colleague.
You’re steamed. You want to complain, and you’re entitled. But be smart about it. And be nice.
Rule 1: Keep your cool. However tempting it can be to answer ineptitude or rudeness with rudeness, don’t. The people in charge are more likely to respond positively to travelers who keep their wits about them — and their manners. Never, ever scream at an airline staffer and vow you’ll never fly with them again; that gives the airline no incentive to help you. If they understand they risk losing a good customer, there’s a better chance they’ll try to make things right.
Rule 2: Find out who the “go-to" person is from the get-go. At the airport, that is usually the airline’s station manager. In the air, it is the chief flight attendant. On the Web, start with the airline Web site’s 'Contact Us’ or 'Customer Service’ section. If you’re really ticked and inclined to sue the ba…, er, the airline, contact the company’s general counsel.
Want to make a federal case of it? Contact the Department of Transportation. Call (202) 366-2220, or you can file a complaint on their Web site, or snail-mail them at: Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590. DOT will want documentation: Send copies (never originals) of your airline ticket and any correspondence you have had with the carrier.
Rule 3: Document everything and hold on to it, beginning with your boarding pass and a print-out of your e-ticket. Even in the digital age, paper sometimes trumps electronic records —especially when the computers seize up. Additionally, create records of your own: what happened, when it happened and who saw it. That way, you can re-create the incident convincingly and back-up your charges.
Rule 4: Have some idea of what would satisfy you, but be flexible and prepare to negotiate. Keep a sense of proportion about it all. The hot, gloppy meal the flight attendant dropped on you certainly made a mess and may have even caused a minor burn, but you probably shouldn’t demand a seat on the airline’s board of directors as recompense. A seat in business class next time, though, may be just the ticket.
Rule 5: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If you get a form letter in reply (very likely), or no reply (equally likely), or an inadequate offer, complain again, politely but persistently. Follow-ups are markedly more successful than first tries. Once it becomes clear you will not just be blown off, your chances of getting results will improve accordingly.