Flying Off the Handle
excepted From Betsy Wade, NY Times News Service, 8 February 1998

Angry letters to airlines complain about everything from foul-ups, rudeness, bad equipment, confused schedules and misdirected luggage, to tales of lost frequent-flier miles. While the airlines do not disclose how many complaints they get, the total must be huge, because their offices that deal with complaints are hugh. Southwest has 70 employees; American, Continental and US Airways each have 100. United Airlines, which has 95, reports getting 400,000 "customer contacts" a year — complaints and compliments.

Considering how many employees must be on the job at the 10 major airlines, it seems fair to assume that complaints get some response, even if not satisfactory to the writers, who may indeed carry out their threats — never to use that airline again.

How to Complain

The advice of several airline officers may assist those who want to voice a grievance. Details differ some, but the basics are identical.

Try to describe the problem in a few words. While angry travelers get "pretty passionate," you need to get to the point and keep it short.

Include the specifics: the name of the traveler, flight numbers, departure and arrival cities, date, airport and names of any employees involved. The airline needs to be able to trace the trip in its investigation. Receipts should be included for any expenditures for which repayment is asked.

Obscenities will get you no where. Complaint letters peppered with insults are viewed with some skepticism as it tends to lower the credibility of the writer because it raises the question of how the customer acted in person.

The question of who to address the letter to gets a mixed reply. Many travelers prefer to write to the president of the company because some letter may get attention if they address an issue that the executive is concerned about. Sending your letter to the president does not substantially slow it getting to the proper destination -- customer service.

If there is no response to your letter in a reasonable length of time — say, two weeks—you can always write the president to complain about that.

Tell the airlines what course of action you seek: a refund, a voucher, a check for replacing clothing immediately needed. etc. While the airlines do not always give what is asked for, at least they don't have to guess what you want. For example, nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable, although several airlines said that trips not taken because of a death in the family could warrant a refund. A copy of the death certificate should be enclosed with the letter.

Call if you must but something in written form is less likely to get lost in the system. Clearly, when things like receipts must be sent, surface mail is the choice. Most airlines have gone to e-mail. United said that its Web site, in operation for a year and a half, was probably getting 10 percent of the consumer complaints, and rising steadily. But they reported that they are getting a disproportionately high number the complimentary letters, probably because it was easier to e-mail than sending a letter by snail-mail.

Where to Complain

Here are the web sites for the biggest US airlines.

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