Say that an airline refuses to give you a refund you’re due. Say you’ve already done your preliminaries, which are:
• You determined that the airline does owe you money, either cash out of pocket or to cover the costs of serious inconvenience.
• You arrived at a dollar figure.
• You assembled relevant documentation in your possession, including, where possible, references to the airline’s own rules it failed to follow.
• You formulated a complaint, briefly summarizing exactly what happened, noted the basis for your claim, and specifically asked for money, a voucher for future travel, or frequent flier miles in your account.
From then on, you are likely to be involved in a protracted process. Don’t even start unless you are willing to exchange several rounds of exchanges. And don’t lose your patience during the process.
To start, follow the official policy of sending your complaint to the airline’s customer service office, along with copies/scans of your documentation. The DOT posts a current list of Consumer Contacts for all U.S.-based airlines at dot.gov/airconsumer/airline-consumer-contacts, including physical/snail mail addresses and Internet links.
In most cases, no matter what your complaint might involve, you will get a form letter response that may or may not actually apply to your specific request. Once, when I reported a technical problem on United’s website, the airline’s return message started, “We’re sorry you were disappointed in your last United flight ...” Feh!
The process really begins with your second letter, where you restate your original complaint and show how the airline’s response failed even to engage with you. Sometimes, this will actually start a negotiation, which you will pursue. But all too often, the airline will stonewall your complaint and tell you it owes you nothing and to stop pestering them. That means escalation.
As the next step, consumer columnist Christopher Elliott recommends readdressing your complaint to the airline’s CEO. His website posts lists of CEOs for both domestic and major foreign airlines at elliott.org/contacts/category/airlines/. (He also posts CEO information for other industries.) If this is the second or third round, he also suggests sending your complaint by express delivery that requires a signature – ordinary letters and emails may never reach the CEO’s eyes.
In addition to, or instead of, the CEO, a lawyer friend suggests resubmitting your complaint to the airline’s general counsel, with a cover letter from your lawyer. Elliott’s postings don’t include general counsels, but you can find them through the corporate information in the line’s website. If you don’t have a regular lawyer, outfits such as The Lawyer’s Letter (lawyersletter.com) or Send A Lawyer Letter (sendalawyerletter.com) will draft one for you; for a fee, of course, starting at around $75.
If that doesn’t work you can try to enlist the help of a third-party advocate such as Elliott or the ombudsman at Conde Nast Traveler. Because of their exposure, these folks have a pretty good track record in resolving consumer problems, but they can handle only a small percentage of complaints.
Your ultimate recourse is, of course, to file an actual lawsuit. If you do, start with the DOT guide to small claims court, Tell it to the Judge, at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/telljudge.htm.
If anywhere along the line an airline offers you something, if it’s at all reasonable, take it.
Folks who deal with consumer matters also stress several don’ts:
• Don’t rely on phone calls; instead, get everything in writing or email.
• Don’t rely on bluster.
• Don’t give a drawn-out hour-by-hour replay of your terrible experience. Keep it short and sweet!