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How to Complain to the Airlines: Effective Ways to Get Ahead

Air travel isn't always fun. Things go wrong. But it's often worth complaining to the airlines and seeing what you can get for your travel inconveniences.

Air travel isn't always fun. Things go wrong. And while you're unlikely to get compensated because a summer thunderstorm made your plane late, it's often worth complaining to the airlines and seeing what you can get for your travel inconveniences.

I spoke to airline representatives and travel experts to find the best ways to make your complaint. Feel free to add your own complaint experiences in the comments at the end of this story.

Take notes when anything goes wrong. Photos help, too. If something goes wrong for you, turn into a reporter. Note down times and write down the names of staff members. (The names are very important, and folks should be wearing nametags.) Take photos of anything visually useful—a broken armrest, for instance.

Try to resolve the problem on the spot. Business travel expert Joe Brancatelli of Joe Sent Me ( says the best complaint letter is one you never had to write. If something goes wrong, do whatever you can to solve the problem on the spot, including finding that elusive "supervisor." If you used a travel agency, call them and loop them in on the problem; after all, they're supposed to be your advocate. Keep your calm, though. Remember you can always write a letter afterwards.

Write a good complaint. The number-one thing airlines are looking for in a complaint is data, according to JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. They want to know what flight number you were on, what day, what time, and exactly what happened.

The trick is to write this into a reasonable, cordial complaint without sounding like a crazy person. If you are angrily banging on the keyboard, you will write a bad complaint. If your letter is more than a few paragraphs, it is a bad complaint. If it has an exclamation point anywhere in it, it is automatically a bad complaint.

A good complaint should have proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. You should start by spelling out exactly what went wrong where, in no more than two paragraphs. If you are a particularly frequent or loyal traveler, mention your status.

In the third paragraph, ask for what you want: a refund? A new ticket? Tell them if you don't hear from them by the amount of time listed in their customer commitment, you will complain to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Better Business Bureau. Above all, be calm and cordial.

Make sure to attach documentation, if you have it—photos or copies/scans of documents.

Be reasonable in what you demand. You're unlikely to get free first-class transatlantic tickets for a broken armrest. And threats like "I will never fly your airline again" are unlikely to result in help; why should an airline care about someone who will never fly it again?

Start with official channels. It's a good idea to start by sending an email through the airline's official web page. Each airline, in their "customer commitment," pledges to answer emails in a set amount of time as set forth below

  • American Airlines says it will respond to customer complaints within 60 days.
  • Delta Air Lines says it will acknowledge your complaint within 30 days, and respond within 60.
  • JetBlue pledges to respond within 30 days, and come up with a substantive answer within 60.
  • Spirit Airlines says it will acknowledge your complaint within 30 days, and respond within 60.
  • Southwest Airlines says it will respond to complaints within 5 days.
  • United Airlines pledges to respond to your inquiry within five business days.
If they don't respond, escalate. Brancatelli advises sending paper, not electronic complaint letters, and sending them to specific people. So now is the time to print out a letter—on your company's letterhead, if you can—attach your documentation, and send it to the senior vice president of customer service.

Filing your complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the airline's local Better Business Bureau can also help get your problem resolved. Both organizations compile lists of complaints, and no airline wants to have the top number of complaints in a given month. You can complain to the DOT at its website and find an airline's local BBB at

Get a professional on your side. If you don't hear back from your airline, or their solution is unsatisfactory, you can try to hire the services of an ombusdman or journalist. Airlines can suddenly become more generous when the cameras are trained on them.

Chris Elliott, "the travel troubleshooter," writes for and helps travelers in a weekly column; contact him at

If your plight is truly heartstring-tugging, though—say, an airport vehicle ran over your dog—call or write your local TV news station instead. Many TV stations have consumer-advocacy reporters who love a david-and-Goliath story that might have a happy ending. 

Finally, launch an "executive email carpet bomb." As an absolute last resort, you can blanket the airline's executives with email. This tactic was invented by the editors of Consumerist, Consumer Reports' blog, and it has succeeded against both United and US Airways in the past.

The EECB is a fearsome weapon, though, and if it's overused, that may ruin its power for everyone. So only embark upon one as a last resort. Consumerist once published a guide on its site on how to construct an EECB effectively.

Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at He lives in New York with his family.

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