Sometimes you need to complain because of bad service, not what you expected, etc. Learn effective ways to express your travel complaints to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
When passengers comment on airline service, most airlines do listen. They analyze and keep track of the travel complaints and compliments they receive, and they use the information to determine what the public wants, and to identify problem areas that need special attention. They also try to resolve individual complaints.
Like other businesses, airlines have a lot of discretion in how they respond to problems. Within your legal rights, your demands for monetary compensation will probably be subject to negotiation. The kind of action you get depends in large part on the way you go about complaining.
IMPORTANT: The Department of Transportation (DOT) keeps very careful track of all travel complaints. Any time that anyone complains to an airline, they should also fill out the DOT complaint form. This way the complaints are entered into a national database.
Start with the Department of Transportation (DOT) complaint form and contact to the airline. (https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint)
Though the DOT may not be the right place to solve your problem, because it is more than likely a customer service issue, sending travel complaints through the DOT complaint process will allow complaining passengers to make sure that all relevant information is included in the complaint. DOT will forward the complaint to the appropriate airline. Getting a message from DOT makes the airlines respond far more quickly than they may with a normal complaint.
Plus, DOT maintains a list of complaints and the types of complaints. This list is maintained and used for future rulemakings. If thousands of passengers complain about lack of room in coach, DOT will note that. Perhaps a future rulemaking may include a guarantee of “humane” space for travelers.
Uncle Sam usually doesn’t get involved in consumer disputes that go beyond luggage, overbooking, delays and cancellations on international flights. However, if the passenger complaint deals with one of the issues that is included in transportation regulations, the DOT will look into fining the airline involved and come down squarely on the side of the passenger.
Merkel’s Law (supposedly named after a veteran ticket agent) frequently has been mentioned by airline passenger advocates. Though most airline agents have their hands tied in many cases, many of us would be surprised at the latitude with which many senior agents operate.
This Merkel’s Law states, “A passenger no longer standing in front of you is no longer a problem.” Daily, this law comes into play unless passengers push the customer service representative into a corner. Ask if an on-the-spot rule waiver might solve the problem. As a rule, airline Customer Service Representatives can take care of most problems on the spot. They can do a lot to immediately make your problems easier to deal with.
- arrange meals and hotel rooms for stranded passengers
- write checks for denied boarding compensation
- endorse tickets to other carriers
- arrange for luggage repairs or an entirely new piece of luggage
- send delayed luggage to your home
- provide taxi vouchers to hotels or between airports
- provide meal and drink vouchers
- settle other routine claims or complaints that involve relatively small amounts of money.
If the problem cannot be resolved at the airport and a passenger wants to file a travel complaint, it’s best to call or write the airline’s consumer or customer relations office. Take notes at the time the incident occurs.
- Jot down the names of the airline employees with whom you dealt.
- Keep all your travel documents (ticket receipts, baggage check stubs, boarding passes, etc.)
- Keep receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred as a result of the mishandling.
Here are some helpful letter-writing tips.
- Type the letter and, if at all possible, limit it to one page.
- Include a daytime telephone number where you can be reached.
- No matter how angry you may be, keep your letter businesslike in tone and don’t exaggerate what happened. If the complaint sounds very vehement or sarcastic when you read it back, you might consider waiting a day and rewriting it.
- Start by saying what reservations you held, what happened and at which ticket office, airport or flight the incident occurred.
- Send copies, never the originals, of tickets, receipts or other documents that can back up your claim.
- Include the names of any employees who were rude or made things worse, as well as especially helpful employees.
- Don’t clutter up your complaint with petty gripes that can obscure what you’re really angry about.
- Let the airline know if you’ve suffered any special inconvenience or monetary loss.
- Say just what you expect the carrier to do to make amends. An airline may offer to settle your claim with a check or some other kind of compensation, possibly free transportation. You may only want a written apology from a rude employee—but the airline needs to know what you want before it can decide what action to take.
- Be reasonable. If your demands are way out of line, your letter could earn you a polite apology and a place in the airline’s crank files.
Following these guidelines will increase the likelihood that the airlines will treat your travel complaints seriously. Your letter will help them to determine what caused your problem, as well as to suggest actions the company can take to prevent the same thing from happening to other travelers.
Contacting the Department of Transportation and FAA with your travel complaints
If travelers want to put in travel complaints about an airline on record with the DOT, the best way is to fill out the DOT complaint form on the web form (http://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm).
Note: The web form allows DOT to capture information more accurately and process it more efficiently. The web form allows travelers to attach a file.
These emailed forms will be acknowledged by DOT and given a file number. Those filing the travel complaints will be notified whether the travel complaints falls under a regulation that will be solved by DOT, or whether it is a customer service complaint that will be forwarded to the responsible airlines.
Once DOT sends these travel complaints to the airlines, the Department will also notify the passenger making the complaint that the airline must acknowledge their complaint within 30 days and provide a substantive response within 60 days. If the airlines do not follow those rules, passengers are instructed to contact DOT again.
- Travelers can also call the ACPD 24 hours a day at 202-366-2220 (TTY 202-366-0511) to record your complaint. Calls are returned Monday through Friday, generally between 7:30 am and 5:00 pm Eastern time.
- They may send a letter to DOT at:
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Whether travelers call, write or use the web form, they should be brief and concise in the description of the problem. The following information should be included:
- Complete address
- Daytime phone number (including area code)
- e-mail address
- Name of the airline or company about which you are complaining
- Flight date
- Flight number, if known
- Origin and destination cities of your trip.
If sending a letter, include a copy (not the original) of your airline ticket or itinerary sheet and any correspondence that may have already been exchanged with the company.
What happens next?
All travel complaints are entered in DOT’s computerized aviation industry monitoring system and are charged to the company in question in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. This report is distributed to the industry and made available to the news media and the general public so that consumers and air travel companies can compare the complaint records of individual airlines and tour operators.
These travel complaints are reviewed to determine the extent to which carriers are in compliance with federal aviation consumer protection regulations. This system also serves as a basis for rulemaking, legislation and research. Where appropriate, letters and web form submissions will be forwarded to an official at the airline for further consideration.
Letters from consumers help the DOT spot problem areas and trends in the airline industry. Every month they publish a report with information about the number of travel complaints they receive about each airline and what problems people are having. They also use DOT complaint files to document the need for changes in the DOT’s consumer protection regulations.
The DOT also has a section of their Web site (http://www.dot.gov/ost/ogc/index.html) devoted to customer service questions. It includes DOT publications and fact sheets as well as airline reports.
Safety and security travel complaints
Consumers with concerns about airline safety should call the Federal Aviation Administration toll-free at 1-866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322). For additional information, go to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to report a safety-related travel problem (http://www.faa.gov/passengers/travel_problems/ )
Consumers with concerns about aviation security can contact the Transportation Security Administration (TSA):
- Call TSA toll-free at 1-866-289-9673
- E-mail TSA (TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov)
- For additional information, visit the TSA Website.
Small Claims Court
All consumer problems can ultimately be taken to Small Claims Court if passengers feel they have not received just compensation for problems.
DOT has a section of their Web site that outlines procedures (https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/air-travelers-tell-it-judge).
Small Claims Courts, created and operated by state and local governments, constitute an important part of our nation’s overall system of justice. These courts were created to promote convenient, prompt, effective and inexpensive resolution of disputes at the grass roots level.
The basic purpose of small claims courts is to help people recover small sums of money without having to hire a lawyer. These courts offer consumers a chance to present their complaint, in person, to an impartial judge who can order the offending person or company to pay money owed. Court procedures are generally simple, informal and inexpensive. The amounts that can be claimed in small claims courts differ depending on the state and range from $2,500 in Kentucky to $25,000 in Tennessee.
Almost all states and localities have some type of small claims court. The rules of these courts vary from state to state, as do the amounts which may be awarded. You may file a complaint in small claims court when you can show that a person or a business owes you money or has harmed you financially and will not pay. Here are some examples of situations in which you might consider using such a court:
- Your connecting flight is canceled, and the airline arranges a van to get you to your destination. Instead of a one-hour flight you have an uncomfortable four-hour ride. The airline denies your request for reimbursement of the difference between air and ground transportation.
- You buy a ticket for a seat in first class from a consolidator. He delivers a coach seat ticket and refuses to refund any of your payment.
- An airline cancels your flight and cannot get you out until the next day. They won’t put you up in a hotel and you end up spending $90 for a room.
- An airline loses your luggage. You try unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement. You can show that the value of the lost item was much more than the airline offers to pay.
Are there any limitations to small claims courts?
Small claims courts do not offer the best course of action for consumers in every situation. Generally, you may sue only for money. Property or merchandise normally cannot be recovered. For example, if an airline damages your coat, a court might grant you a cash award rather than ordering the airline to replace the coat.
You must be prepared to appear in court when your case is set. Expenses such as time lost from work are not usually recoverable. In some situations, it may be more effective, less troublesome, and quicker to retain an attorney, or to seek assistance from another source, such as a consumer affairs office or governmental agency.
To determine if small claims court is the best course of action for you, consider whether:
- The amount of your claim is less than the monetary limit established by the state or local law.
- The party you are suing does business in the court’s jurisdiction. Small claims courts are usually not effective in resolving disputes with firms that do not do business in the state or with people who live outside of the court’s jurisdiction.
- You have carefully reviewed and followed any stipulations of the contract of carriage and have given the company a reasonable opportunity to meet its obligations.
What are limitations on small claims courts?
There is no equivalent to a small-claims court in the federal court. (Note that Congress has set the jurisdictional minimum for diversity jurisdiction cases at $75,000). Magistrate judges are authorized to handle certain preliminary matters. Since the year 2010, the costs of filing fees have increased in almost every state court system. Filing fees typically range from US$15 to $150, depending on the claim amount. Alternative to small claims court include less expensive, faster online dispute resolution and settlement services, where potential litigants settle their disputes at lower cost without requiring or involving any adjudicative process. (From Wikipedia)
Travel industry consumer protection programs
These two organizations provide good industry-based consumer affairs programs:
American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)
1101 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
United States Tour Operator Association
211 E. 51st Street, #12B
New York, NY 10022
ASTA may be able to help if your travel complaints are against a member travel agent or one of the travel suppliers booked through a travel agency. You must submit complaints to ASTA within six months of the incident.
The United States Tour Operator Association represents about 40 large wholesale tour operators. Their assistance programs are very helpful when member organizations are involved.
Local and Web-based consumer help programs
In most communities there are consumer help groups that try to mediate complaints about businesses, including airlines and travel agencies.
Most state governments have a special office that investigates consumer problems and complaints. Sometimes it is a separate division in the governor’s or state attorney general’s office. Check your telephone book under the state government listing.
Many cities and counties have consumer affairs departments that handle complaints. Often, travelers can register travel complaints and get information over the phone or in person.
The local Better Business Bureau can often help resolve disputes.
A number of newspapers and radio or TV stations operate Hot Lines or Action Lines where individual consumers can get help. Consumer reporters, with the help of volunteers, try to mediate complaints and may report the results as a news item. The possible publicity encourages companies to take fast action on consumer problems when they are referred by the media. Some Action Lines, however, may not be able to handle every complaint they receive. They often select the most severe problems or those that are most representative of the kinds of complaints they get.
Elliott.org is an advocacy website with a bulletin board that seeks to assist passengers in distress. Fill out the form on the help page to get started — http://elliott.org/help/.
Elliott.org also runs a frequented help forum at http://elliott.org/forum/. This venue is perfect for posting questions to other travelers and to see how others have handled similar problems.
Condé Nast TRAVELER has sections called Ombudsman and Question & Answer that provide help in settling some travel-related problems. However, their problem solving and answers are limited to those problems they discuss in the magazine. The address and fax numbers for these sections are published monthly in the magazine, or contact them through their Web site.
A group of radio and TV stations has a “Call for Action” consumer program. If you can’t get satisfaction from the travel company, call this hotline at 1-800-647-1756.
A website called Airhelp.com can also assist and may take a case to court for passengers. It focuses on the European Union laws, for the most part, and, where appropriate, will represent passengers. They work on a commission basis and are one of the few effective legal operations for travelers.
Yet another option that has recently appeared is a smartphone app called Service. It is a free download from the Apple or Android/Google Play App Store, and promises to help users resolve issues and complaints against a variety of companies, including airlines and transportation companies. However, note that if Service is successful at resolving your issue, it may charge a fee for its assistance.
A new consumer organization, IATPA (International Air Transport Passenger Association), has formed to help passengers fight international airline actions.
Disability and Discrimination Complaints
If a complaint alleges discriminatory treatment in air travel by personnel of an air carrier or its contractors (e.g., pilots, gate agents, flight attendants) on the basis of disability or on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion or ancestry, DOT encourages passengers to file their complaint with DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division by using their web form — http://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm.
If travelers prefer, they may also file disability and discrimination complaints by sending a letter to DOT or by completing complaint forms that you may download and print.
- Disability: Additional information about filing a disability complaint against an airline and to access the disability complaint form — https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/complaints-alleging-discriminatory-treatment-against-disabled-travelers
- Discrimination: Additional information about filing a discrimination complaint against an airline and to access the discrimination complaint form — https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/processing-complaints-alleging-discrimination-airlines-based-race-color
If travelers feel that they have been the subject of discriminatory action or treatment at an airport by security or law enforcement personnel, DOT provides additional information on where to file your travel complaints.
EU — How to complain
If you believe that you have a valid complaint against an airline regarding denied boarding, downgrading, cancellation or long delay, you should first contact the air carrier that operated the flight. Regulation 261/2004 applies to all flights operated by any airline from any EU airport, and flights to an EU airport operated by any EU airline. Below are suggestions for free contact points in case you need further assistance.
EU complaint form for air passengers
If you feel that your rights have not been respected, first contact the transport company, regardless of your means of transport. Under EU law, mechanisms to handle passenger travel complaints are to be put in place by carriers and terminal operators. If you are not satisfied with their response, contact the National Enforcement Body (see below) for your specific mode of transport: Air | Rail | Maritime | Bus. The complaint form should be sent to the airline or competent National Enforcement Body, NOT to the European Commission.
National Enforcement Bodies
The EU rules oblige Member States to nominate or create “national enforcement bodies,” whose role is to verify that transport operators are treating all passengers in accordance with their rights. Passengers who believe they have not been treated correctly should contact the body in the country where the incident took place. Contact the National Enforcement Body for your specific mode of transport. You can find the lists here: Air | Rail | Maritime | Bus
European Consumer Centre (ECC)
A European Consumer Centre (ECC) supported by the European Commission exists in every EU country as well as in Iceland and Norway. The centres are there to help travellers who have difficulties in having their rights respected, such as the right to be reimbursed or re-routed to the final destination and the right to obtain meals and accommodation. Full contact details for ECCs for all countries and links to national websites can be found at: http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/ecc/contact_en.htm
The European Commission’s preliminary screening service
Please note that the European Commission’s preliminary screening service provides citizens with general information about their rights under EU law when travelling and about how to proceed if they wish to log a complaint. The Commission services do not handle travel complaints themselves, which must be submitted to the air carrier and to the competent authority in the country where the incident took place.
The Europe Direct central information service helps you find answers to your questions about the European Union. It offers information on all sorts of subjects related to the EU, including your rights and opportunities as an EU citizen and how to take advantage of them. It can provide direct responses to general inquiries and, if you have more detailed questions, signpost you to the best source of information and advice at EU, national, regional and local levels.
The detailed requirements for disclosing domestic contract terms do not apply to international travel. Airlines file Tariff Rules with the government for international service. Passengers are generally bound by these rules whether or not they receive actual notice of them.
Every international airline must keep a copy of its tariff rules at its airport and city ticket offices. You have a right to examine these rules. The airline agents must answer your questions about information in the tariff, and they must help you locate specific tariff rules, if necessary.
The most important point to remember, whether your travel is domestic or international, is that you should not be afraid to ask questions about an airline’s rules. You have a right to know the terms of your Contract of Carriage. It is in your best interest, as well as the airline’s, for you to ask in advance about any matters of uncertainty.
The Montreal Convention
The Montreal Convention (1999), titled the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (pdf) amended the Warsaw System. It re-established uniformity and predictability of the rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, luggage and cargo. It provides, among other things, for:
- Unlimited liability in the event of death or injury of passengers
- Advanced payments to meet immediate needs
- The possibility of bringing a law suit before the courts in the passenger’s principal place of residence
- Increased liability limits in the event of delay
- The modernisation of transport documents (electronic airway bills and tickets)
- The clarification of the rules on the respective liability of the contractual carrier and the actual carrier
- The obligation for air carriers to maintain adequate insurance
Under the Montreal Convention the liability limits are set in Special Drawing Rights (SDR), which are a mix of currency values established by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The current value of an SDR in Euro is available on the IMF’s website. The liability limits are reviewed every 5 years.