Got an Airline Complaint? How to Be Heard

Consider this four-step process.

— -- Sometimes it feels like it's getting harder and harder to talk to an airline. Frontier drops its toll-free number, Spirit answers tweets with a robot, and Uzbekistan Airways won't tell us we're too fat, but it is going to weigh all passengers.

Some of us are managing to communicate, however. Complaints about airlines are soaring, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Transportation.

Let's see how bad things are, how to file a complaint and how to get action.

Complaints about U.S. airlines jumped 20 percent in the first six months of the year (compared to the same period last year), but the dismal June figures were a bigger story as unhappy passengers nearly doubled the number of complaints filed in June 2014.

The big target: Spirit Airlines, which garnered nearly 20 percent of all June complaints; it should be noted the airline only became a DOT “reporting carrier” this year.

The biggest complaints included the usual suspects: delayed or canceled flights, missing baggage, refunds and ticketing problems. Sometimes the anger is misdirected; there's not a lot a carrier can do when bad weather destroys any chance of leaving the gate on time, nor can the airline help it if a passenger fails to understand that a non-refundable ticket means no refunds (though it might help if they stated this plainly).

In fairness, there were fewer than 10,000 complaints filed from January to June, not much, considering roughly 300 million people flew in that same period. But who cares when it's your suitcase missing at the start of vacation?

How to complain

If you have a problem with airport security, the TSA website can link you to forms for everything from claims for damaged property to lost and found. But if it's the airline you wish to address, follow these steps.

Step one:

Contact the airline directly. Every airline website has some sort of customer service contact info on its site (look under Help or Contact Us). There's usually a phone number or an online form to fill out. I suggest filling out the form, which gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and dig through your paperwork (you'll need both flight and confirmation number). Keep it short and be polite. Then sit back and cross your fingers for a response.

Step two:

No response? Send another email. Then call.

Step three:

Go to the Department of Transportation website where you can call, or fill out yet another form or even send snail mail. Do not expect a response; complaints are gathered for a monthly statistical round-up published on the DOT website. For the airlines, it's more than public shaming; these statistics become fodder for news media reports and often catch the attention of policy makers. So if you have a complaint, be sure to file because it may help in the long-run. For the short-run, there's always social media.

Step four:

Most airlines have social media teams in place to monitor passenger problems before they blow up and go viral. Better to solve a problem fast (if possible) then allow it to fester and make the airline look dumb. Follow your favorite airline on Twitter and if there's a problem, you may be asked to direct-message them. I can't say they will find your missing bag or “un-delay” your flight but many passengers find help this way. Indeed, you may want to start here with a complaint.

But maybe not if you fly Spirit. As the discounter proudly notes on its robotic Twitter feed, "a big social media team costs money." So Mr. Auto Pilot is in charge of tweeting and he is not very responsive. If you have a complaint, go to Spirit's website and fill out the form.

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