April 12, 2013— -- Here's hoping you never have a travel problem but life has a funny way of throwing us curves like lost bags, missed connections and a horrible experience at security. Yes, stuff happens.
But don't just gripe, take action. File a complaint. Most airlines work hard to resolve problems and they're not crazy about seeing reputations tarnished by high complaint numbers that get plastered all over the web as was the case last week with the release of the annual Airline Quality Rating report (best headline: "Fed up with being crammed into planes!").
Got a gripe? Here's how to file a complaint.
Always, always, always file a written and/or formal complaint, which means filling out the appropriate form or sending an email. Follow proper procedures while creating a paper trail. A list of airlines and links to their designated complaint contacts can be found at the end of this column.
That said, there are other agencies you can contact - I provide links to those as well below - but there are a few things to do the moment a problem crops up.
For problems on a flight:
If you can see that normal human discourse (meaning, "calm conversation") will go nowhere, hit the overhead call button. Let the flight attendant deal with it - that's one of the things they get paid for. If you don't like how the cabin crew solved your problem, see the airline contact links at the end.
One more thing: You might want to avoid discussing problems with a pilot. A family made news recently after seeking the pilot's help in getting an in-flight movie shut off from their overhead screen (they felt "Alex Cross" was too adult for their youngsters). The pilot's response was to divert the plane and dump the family.
For damaged or missing baggage:
Do not leave the airport without filing a bag claim of some kind. Normally you'd do this at the airline baggage office by the carousel but if it's not staffed, find a gate agent or someone at the reservations desk. If it's the middle of the night and no one's around, call the airline and get the name of whoever you speak to and note the time of the call to prove you tried to report the problem.
One of my employees didn't notice until she got home (and was in an enclosed space) that her suitcase positively reeked of gasoline. She then called the airline but was told it was too late since the bag could have picked up the odor on the trip home from the airport. She never was able to get rid of the smell and had to shell out $200 on a new piece of luggage.
For flight delays or cancelations:
You'll have plenty of time to complain later (again, see the airline links below) but at the first sign of delay, your immediate objective is getting on the next available flight, so start multi-tasking. This means standing in line for a gate agent while you call an airline rep and plead your case on social media (some airlines check Twitter frequently and try to resolve those problems first).
You've been bumped:
Bumping is relatively rare but it happens. At least these days you can count on a nice chunk of change for your trouble, as much as $1,300 in compensation depending on the length of the delay. Talk to the gate agent, get your money (and take the cash, forget any voucher offers), then complain later (see airline links below).
With 50,000 Transportation Security Administration officers screening about two million passengers every day, there are going to be problems but I'm impressed at how easy the TSA makes it to file a complaint. Here are the links:
• For property damage or physical injury complaints, click here• For complaints about civil rights or civil liberties, click here• Contact information for the TSA Ombudsman, click here• General contact information, click here
When all else fails:
There are two final things you can do if you have a problem and don't get a satisfactory resolution. The first is to file a complaint with the Dept. of Transportation (DOT). This one DOT link provides phone and email contacts for three problem categories so your complaint goes to the right party:
• Safety and security• Airline service• Disability and discrimination
Your other last ditch effort: Social media. When admittedly overweight flyer Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest flight a couple of years back for being 'too fat to fly' (despite already being comfortably settled in his seat), the Hollywood writer-director shared his uh, great disappointment with his two million Twitter followers. You better believe Southwest got the message and ended up issuing a public apology.
Airline complaint contacts:
Click on the airline name for the link to its complaint contact. You will likely be asked to outline the nature of your problem and here are a couple of things to keep in mind: Keep emails terse and to the point but do include such details as date of your flight, time of day and flight number (very important) as well as your name as it appeared on your reservations. Don't forget to include all your pertinent contact information, too.
The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.