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A few weeks ago I took a crazy short trip to Denver and back. The flight out of San Francisco was slightly delayed, but not terribly. It was pretty much a par-for-the-course United delay, mainly due to weather in United’s network, and it could have been much worse that particular weekend (SEE: The huge problem flying Frontier).

When we arrived in Denver, however, it took an extra 45 minutes to get off the plane. There were multiple issues with the jetway, and then the plane had to be re-parked in order for us to get off. The result was a plane load of grumpy passengers.

The next day I boarded my flight back to the West Coast, expecting to get some writing done during the flight (as I had just been on-boarded with PWaC). I went to check the WiFi prices, and was honestly considering buying access for the first time ever, only to find the WiFi wasn’t working. It remained down the entire flight. Not a huge deal, but it was mildly frustrating in the moment.

A few days later I submitted a complaint via United’s feedback page. I mentioned the specific issues of the trip, highlighting the jetway delays and the lack of WiFi. I also mentioned the general delays experienced flying between my home airport of Arcata/Eureka and San Francisco on multiple occasions. Because I had used a voucher to pay for the flight and I don’t have any status with United, I didn’t really expect anything. Those with status generally have better results when complaining to airlines.

About a week later I received an email from United apologizing for the situation and telling me to expect an electronic travel certificate within the next 5 days. It didn’t give an amount, but I expected something small, like $50.

Complaining to airlines

Two days later I received another email detailing:

An Electronic Travel Certificate has been issued to Ian Snyder (Mileage Plus XXXXXXXX) valid towards the purchase of one electronic airline ticket, where eligible, on United up to $125.00.

That is way more than I anticipated! This was (ironically) the first time I had not detailed any sort of compensation (since I didn’t really think much was warranted), but I still wanted to let United know how I felt about the issues experienced on the trip.

Tips for Complaining to Airlines

When complaining to airlines about difficulties, poor service, or other mishaps, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Be clear, timely, and succinct in your communication – Try to work things out immediately, if possible. In the case of the lack of WiFi on my flight, I mentioned it to one of the flight attendants. He wasn’t able to do anything about it, but it was step one. After I returned home, I made sure I submitted my complaint to United within only a couple days of the incidents. I kept my incident report brief and to the point, but with all relevant details.
  2. Be reasonable – Be reasonable with what you feel is appropriate compensation. Don’t expect an airline to refund all your miles for an hour delay due to operations. Communicate with them in a reasonable way. Keep emotion and inflammatory language out of your communication. These are people who are reading/hearing your complaint. Treat them respectfully. But definitely…
  3. Outline what you feel is appropriate compensation – I have found this immensely helpful the few times I have complained to airlines. The first time I complained to United, I asked for either all my miles back or a $500 voucher. They had canceled our regional flight with only 11 hours notice, and my wife and I had to drive to SFO (~270 miles) and get rebooked. We had to pay for airport parking and gas both ways to and from the Bay, not to mention driving through the night to get there. United ended up refunding all the miles.
  4. Know your rights – While there is little to no protection of any sort in the U.S., some other countries have policies that mandate compensation for delayed or canceled flights. The most well known of these is EU 261 (SEESubmitting an EU261 compensation claim for a delayed or canceled flight).
  5. Don’t give up until you feel the situation is righted – If you don’t feel the airline has responded appropriately, don’t give up. But make sure you are following point #2 above. If United has simply said “Tough luck, we’re sorry” on my recent Denver trip, I would have let it drop. The issues were minor inconveniences at most. But if you have a more serious issue, persist. Don’t let it drop. Things may take a while to come through (SEEStill fighting for EU261 / 2004 compensation)

If you follow the above tips, you’ll generally have a better shot at getting compensated when complaining to airlines.

Header image courtesy of Oliver Holzbauer under CC 2.0 license

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