Every airline makes mistakes — admittedly some more than others — and every traveller has been caught out by delays, lost luggage, faulty seats, a borked inflight entertainment systems or other items on the long list of Things That Can Go Wrong.
And when things do go wrong with an airline, it's often difficult to get your problems resolved then and there.
Frontline staffers and cabin crew often lack the authority to sign off on fixing your problem -- or they're just completely swamped with hundreds of other customers in a similar boat to you.
So you're left to complain to the airline.
But how do you maximise your chances of getting what you need? Here's some hard-won advice on how to complain — and get results.
1. When something goes wrong
First off, document whatever's happened. Seat not working or dirty? Outfit stained by a flight crew accident? Luggage problem? Downgraded to economy?
Use your smartphone to snap pictures or even a short video if you can, including the problem and ideally some kind of marker for the date and time. (A clock on the wall? Your watch? A newspaper? Your laptop clock?)
Note down who you first speak to about the problem, what was said, and what the airline said you should do next — and when.
2. Start with the end in mind
Figure out what you want: an apology? Monetary compensation or even a full refund? A credit voucher? Frequent flyer points? Compensation for a hotel stay or emergency necessities? Replacement for a bag or possession that the airline ruined? Something else?
But be realistic: ask around to see what you can reasonably expect the airline to do about it. (Try the Australian Business Traveller Questions and Answers section, where fellow travellers are always around to help you out.)
3. Keep track of things in one place
It's important to keep track of your dealings with the airline, both for follow-up reasons ("I've spoken to five people since October 4th, and here are their names and what they said") and to save yourself time finding the details for a second call.
So keep track of things in a Word document, a file in Evernote or old fashioned paper.
4. Use the phone
Start off with a phone call, which is the best use of your time: often, problems can be resolved with a call rather than needing to sit down and crank out a stiffly-worded email or letter.
As much as we'd often prefer to start off with an email, most airlines don't do email well, there's almost always an initial barrage of questions, and their online enquiry forms have a frustrating habit of going astray.
Even if you do need to write in, a quick call can ensure you get to the right place and that the initial circumstances of your problem have been logged.
As for Twitter, most times we just wouldn't bother. The standard Twitter response from too many airlines is usually "call our contact centre". An exception might be if you're overseas and don't want to make a long-distance phone call, and are trying to get the airline to ring you.
5. Make notes before you dial
Before you dial, make a few quick notes to steer your end of the conversation.
- The number you're calling (for next time, or if you get disconnected)
- The date and time you're calling
- The case number, if you have one (from a baggage problem, say)
- Your flight particulars
- Your frequent flyer number
- Any insurance details you have
- A few bullet points of what's happened and what you want: this helps you to articulate your discussion with the agent on the phone
Above all else, remember to keep your cool. Don't just vent your frustration on the poor sod who'll answer your call. You won't get what you want if you're still angry about things.
6. Start writing when the phone starts ringing
While you're navigating the airline's interactive call menu, jot down:
- The time when you started the call
- How you reach a real live person (press 4, then 6, then 8, for example)
- Who you talked to and in which department
7. Don't hang up without a "next action"
So you've made it through to a real live human and said your piece. Before hanging up, seek agreement with the airline's agent on what happens next. Note down:
- What the next step is (for someone to call you back, or for you to put your concerns in writing)
- When you should follow up if you haven't heard back
- How you'll follow up: direct line? A person-specific address?
- The time when you ended the call
8. Be sure to follow up
It's all too easy for things to get lost — and it's in the airline's interests if they don't get back to you with that promised update or a resolution.
So if you're told this is a "check back in two weeks" situation, make a note in your calendar to remind you to follow up. Be persistent and polite and you'll win out in the end.
What's happened when you've complained to an airline? Been fobbed off or did you get satisfaction? Share your experiences below and contribute to AusBT readers' pool of knowledge!
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.