Your Airline Screwed Up. Now What?

Your airline screwed up: A bag is missing, you got bumped from the plane or maybe the flight was late and you missed an important meeting. Do you have any recourse? You can always complain and if you’re loud enough, you may get satisfaction.

Airline Screw-ups: How to Complain

Let me say first off that airlines don’t like to screw up. Sure, some unhappy customers forgive-and-forget after screw-ups (usually if the price is right), but other passengers have long memories. Since airlines want all their planes filled all the time, they want to keep you happy. Or at least, not too dissatisfied.

If you are not happy about a screw-up, try the following.

1. Tell the airline

Contact the carrier ASAP. If you have a problem, especially baggage-related, do not leave the airport without making a claim at the baggage office. For other problems, complain to a gate agent in person, by email and/or phone (I suggest all three). Keep it courteous; anecdotal evidence strongly suggests airlines are much more receptive to politte criticism as opposed to yelling and screaming.

  • Tip: Know the rules before you complain; find them on airline websites (see ‘contracts of carriage’). For instance, one traveler made the mistake of wearing a T-shirt with the F-bomb on it and was shocked to be turned away; that’s not an airline screw-up, that’s an airline no-no found in many contracts of carriage.

2. Tell the world

Social media really is your friend. Most airlines pay close attention to it because they don’t want passengers telling the world about a bad experience. If you don’t already follow your airline, do so now and make complaints brief, to the point and polite.

  • Tip: When making any kind of complaint, hang onto paperwork (or be ready to retrieve it from the Cloud); you’ll need to document screw-ups with flight numbers and more.

3. Tell the government

When all else fails,  file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. The bad news is, the agency does not determine the validity of an airline’s screw-up; they do no investigations and come to no conclusions.

There are positives to filing a DOT complaint, though, because gripes may be forwarded to airline executives for “further consideration” and all complaints (categorized by airline and subject matter) are published each month for the world to see. Most airlines don’t like looking bad in these public records and some have made it a point to improve their statistics. Delta, for instance, made huge strides in complaint rankings over the years from dead last in Oct. 2010 to a tie with JetBlue for the number five spot in Oct. 2016.

  • Tip:  Complain to the DOT here. Complain about the TSA here and any safety issues here.

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Updated: February 26, 2016