How not to complain, with 4 tips for success

by David Burns on April 30, 2008

It seems you can’t open a newspaper or launch a dot-com news source these days without reading something bad about an airline: flights canceled by the thousands, fleets of aircraft grounded, airlines going out of business. Even the Federal Aviation Administration, which is supposed to be guarding this henhouse, is being criticized — for playing footsie with the fox.

My assignment was to write a “helpful hints” piece on how to complain to airlines. As I recalled anecdotes from the years I spent working in a major airline’s customer relations office, I seemed to remember ones that demonstrated how not to complain rather than how to complain correctly. I guess that’s human nature. I hope these backwards examples will help make complaining easier and more effective for you.

Be realistic

Last month, when American Airlines grounded all its MD-80s and canceled thousands of flights, I heard a customer being interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR). As she waited in line, she complained bitterly in her brash Yankee accent: “And they didn’t even bring me a cup of cawfee!

I’m not mocking her. Well, maybe I am a little, because I’m sure if that lady had thought about it, she’d much rather have had those employees at their computer stations rebooking tickets than out in the lobby delivering Maxwell House. If she’d gotten coffee, I suspect we’d have heard her on NPR saying, “They are out here delivering cawfee!, the line is miles long, and there are unmanned computer stations behind the ticket counter!”

Moral of the story: When the you-know-what hits the fan, the airline can’t please everyone. In these sorts of situations, you can’t expect to be altogether pleased – you’ve been inconvenienced and you’re primed to be unhappy no matter what the airlines do.

Before you complain, do your homework

The following conversation, or one very close to it, occurs with alarming frequency. My unspoken thoughts as the employee on the receiving end of this call are highlighted in italics.

Customer: I flew to Florida last month and my flight was late. I want to know why, and I want to be compensated.
Me: (That sounds easy enough.) When did you fly?
Customer: Spring break.
Me: (That’s not very specific.) To what airport were you traveling?
Customer: Florida.
Me: (Big help. There are only, like, 17 airports in the state.) From what airport did you depart?
Customer: New York City.
Me: (OK, there are three major airports and a bunch of smaller ones around New York City. Which one?) Sir, what airport in New York?
Customer: Oh, Newark.
Me: (OK, fella, that’s in New Jersey … This is like pulling teeth. I just want to figure out which flight this guy was on.) Where did you change planes?
Customer: I didn’t change planes. I flew nonstop.
Me: (Now we’re getting somewhere!) Sir, are you certain you flew nonstop and that you left from Newark?
Customer: Yeah, yeah. Oh, and I remember now, it was Jacksonville I flew to. I was visiting my cousin in St. Augustine.
Me: (The empty coconut “thunk” you hear is the sound of my head hitting my desk.) Sir, I think you may have called the wrong airline. Continental is the only carrier that operates nonstop between Newark and Jacksonville. We offer only connecting service.
Customer: Oops. Come to think of it, I did fly Continental. Sorry. Do you have their phone number?
Me: (@#&%!$) Certainly, sir.

Moral of the story: You’d think it would go without saying, but if you want your complaint resolved, first call the right airline, and then make sure you have flights, dates, receipts and other information at your fingertips. If you are writing or e-mailing, enclose or attach legible copies. If you don’t, you’ll get a letter back asking for supporting documentation, and your “file” will go to the bottom of the pile.

Be reasonable

It’s your wedding anniversary so you pull out all the stops, booking a magical Caribbean cruise for you and the missus. Except you decide to save $100 by not spending the night in the hotel near the port, even though your ship has a morning departure. What’s more, you leave only 90 minutes between the time your flight lands and the time your ship sails.

That’s just not enough time, but for some reason, people love to cut things close when they plan a trip. I have no explanation for it, but I can tell you this: Even a slight delay, or a line for a cab, or a trip to the bathroom is going to cause a major problem for you if you do this, and I can’t tell you how many times people try to blame this sort of thing on the airline. As they say, poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency for me, and you can’t expect the airline to pay for your now-ruined anniversary fling. If you’re forking out thousands of dollars for a cruise, what’s an extra $100 for a motel?

Moral of the story: Set yourself up for success, and don’t expect the airline to bail you out if you don’t.

Tell the truth

In most versions of events, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That flight attendant probably didn’t act as much like Cruella de Vil as you described, and you probably didn’t act much like Glinda the Good Witch, either.

A customer once wrote to me with a very vivid description of an employee’s indifference to her needs. I was all fired up about the employee’s behavior until I learned, upon investigation, that this customer was so aggressive that in the midst of an obscenity-laden diatribe, she kicked our employee and broke her hand in three places! That part hadn’t made it into the complaint letter. I removed the compensation voucher I had intended to send the passenger and changed my apology to a reminder about our company’s intolerant stance toward disorderly customers.

Moral of the story: Don’t lie. The airlines will investigate your complaint, and dishonesty will affect the resolution.

I no longer work for the airlines, but I still travel a lot and I’ve noticed some things. We, the traveling public, don’t always make it easy for airline employees. We aren’t always nice; in fact we can be downright disrespectful, yet we complain of rude employees. We can be slobs, yet we complain of dirty airplanes. (Would you clip your toenails in any other public place and just leave the clippings there for the next guy? Yuck!) We’re cheap, yet we want flying Barcaloungers, top-shelf liquor and a gourmet meal with our discount tickets.

Here are some hard truths: You reap what you sow, and you simply can’t have it all. But if you have a legitimate beef with the airlines, and you want your problem resolved quickly and satisfactorily, you must do four things: be realistic, do your homework, act reasonably and tell the truth. But for heaven’s sake, start by being nice. You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with vinegar, whether on land or in the sky.

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