How to Make the Airlines Pay Attention When They Screw Up

PHOTO: A woman holds her head while sitting on a baggage claim carousel in an undated stock photo.Getty Images
A woman holds her head while sitting on a baggage claim carousel in an undated stock photo.

California Congresswoman Janice Hahn told the Los Angeles Times she thinks it's too difficult for the average Joe to file complaints about airline screw-ups and wants to streamline the process. She has a point, but a bigger issue might be: Does complaining do any good?

Yes and no. The good news is there are a couple of ways to make your voice louder.

There are a lot of airline screw-ups these days, at least in the eyes of certain consumers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, complaints for 2015 jumped almost 30 percent over the year before but compare December 2015 with December 2014 and the increase is an astonishing 47 percent. That's even more significant considering DOT-filed complaints are something of a last resort. Here's what to know and how to proceed.

1. Check out airline rules first.

Take a look at your airline's contract of carriage; it may save time in the long run. I wrote about these documents in a column a few years ago; they define carriers' rules and regulations (and there's some weird and wonderful stuff in these things). It's legalese for what you can and cannot do so don't waste time complaining about a rule you violated.

Say you're thinking about contacting American Airlines because of a hassle with the flight crew over your F-bomb-emblazoned T-shirt; sorry, that's already covered in AA's contract of carriage which says you can be refused transportation if "clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers." But if you're concerned with average problems like flight delays or cancellations, continue to step two.

2. Contact the airline.

If you're at the airport, talk to an agent and try to resolve the problem then and there, but be nice; these folks often have a tough job and yelling won't help your case (though it might on social media so don't skip number three).

If you're not at the airport, go to the airline's website for contact information; Delta Air Lines, for example, provides phone numbers and an elaborate online email form that covers everything from bags to refunds, disability-related issues and more. Some airlines also include a snail-mail address but email is faster. Note: You'll be asked to give flight numbers or ticket numbers and/or confirmation codes so don't lose or delete on the off-chance there's a screw-up. When will you hear back? A passenger I know had a problem with Swiss Air; the airline responded within 24 hours; others can take days or weeks.

3. Go on social media.

Most airlines monitor Twitter and Facebook carefully so they can deal with unhappy travel experiences before the venting gets out of hand. Angry passengers on social media are 21st Century global billboards that scream, "Do not fly this airline!" No carrier wants that.

4. Talk to the feds.

The Department of Transportation has a special section devoted to air travel consumers where you'll find complaint forms. The government agency will also tell you where to direct complaints on safety (FAA) and security (TSA).

The problem: The DOT does not determine the validity of each consumer’s complaint; it does not investigate. What it will do is collect the numbers and types of passenger complaints and put them on display each month for the world to see -- and the world includes the news media. It's like social media gripes; airlines don't want to look bad in these pages.

More importantly, these DOT complaints may actually serve the greater good as the "basis for [federal] rulemaking, legislation and research," as stated in a how to guide for filing a consumer complaint. And some of these complaints may be forwarded to airline officials "for further consideration," says the same guide. It might give your gripe a bit of a boost.

5. Cover your options.

If there's a screw-up, cover your options by trying all these strategies and if you don't get satisfaction you can always switch airlines. It does help to be an elite flyer (or at least a member of an airlines miles/points program) so be sure to mention that if you contact the airline to say bye-bye.

You could stay home all together in protest against airline screw-ups but that's not very practical (or fun); you'd need to corral thousands of your fellow fliers to make any kind of dent in travel demand and as long as demand remains steady, there's no reason for airlines to change.

On the other hand, some airlines do seem to understand there's a certain restlessness, a certain unhappiness back in coach class. Which may explain why more and more economy passengers are getting free snacks.

Rick Seaney is the CEO of the website FareCompare.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.