How to Complain
And Get Results
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2022 -- When the Transportation Department dropped its Air Travel Consumer Report on Wednesday, it was hard to stifle the yawns. After all, this monthly compilation of airline performance statistics has become performance art: The government explains how the airlines suck with a fusillade of graphs and charts and we all shrug and move on because, honestly, what can we do about it?

But the numbers for August, the most recent compiled by the DOT, were so eye-gaugingly awful that even the most cynical of us must sit up and take notice. Passenger complaints jumped 6% compared to July--and were a staggering 320% above pre-pandemic levels. The specifics are horrifying, running the gamut from flight delays and cancellations to missing refunds, denied boarding, mishandled luggage and garden-variety rudeness.

Still, the yawn-inducing reality remains: Complaints against the airlines registered with the DOT don't amount to much. The agency never seems to punish carriers and even a Presidential proclamation this week declaring bureaucratic war against junk fees will probably be forgotten after Election Day.

I'm convinced the better approach is to ditch the bureaucrats and compose a carefully honed letter of complaint to the offending airline, hotel or car rental firm. If you want restitution--or even just psychic satisfaction--take your complaint right to the source. But this takes some work because writing a good complaint letter takes skill. It needs to be thoughtfully crafted and it must cover certain key points.

I've compiled these dozen tips after dozens of years helping business travelers get restitution for any number of foul-ups. I can't guarantee 100% success, of course, but follow this 12-step program and you will turn most legitimate gripes into a satisfactory resolution.

The best complaint letter is the one you never write because you have solved the problem on the spot. If you can't get it right with the person with whom you are dealing, speak to someone higher up on the food chain. A direct message to the firm's Twitter account may also generate timely intervention. Your travel schedule permitting, it's worth investing time in an on-site, ad hoc arbitration.

There is a body of laws specific to lodgings and car rentals, but those transactions are largely governed by standard business and legal practices. Not so with the airlines. They literally create their own rules, called the contract of carriage, and you explicitly agree to it when you purchase a ticket. A consumer-oriented look at our flying rights is produced by the DOT. You have more substantial legal protections if your flight originates in Europe and the EU clearly outlines your options.

You are an experienced traveler so you should have a sense early in the process if something is amiss. Start taking notes immediately. Note times, places, names and as many specifics as you can. Where appropriate, use your phone to get an audio, photographic and/or video record. Hold on to all receipts, tickets, boarding passes and anything else that's part of the paper trail. And think like a businessperson: Keep track of anything and everything you would want to know if it was your job to resolve the problem retroactively.

Don't throw your grievance file in the corner with your expense account. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you'll get satisfaction. Initiate your complaint as soon as you get home.

E-mail is easiest and fastest, of course, but most airlines and hotels seem unwilling or unable to resolve substantial problems electronically. That's okay since an actual paper trail is to your benefit. Rely on an old-fashioned paper letter. Use company stationery and never send a handwritten note. Attach copies, not originals, of relevant documents and supporting evidence.

Letters generically addressed to customer service will be handled generically and will yield nothing more than a generic apology. If your complaint is extremely specific--a marketing program, a service failure--google the name of the executive in charge of that department and write to them specifically. Otherwise, consider writing to the chief executive. You are unlikely to get a response directly from the top dog, but C-suite executives in the travel industry have staffers specifically charged with handling letters addressed to them. (Alternately, some business travelers have resolved complaints by writing to the firm's assistant general counsel. I don't know why, but it seems to work.)

A long missive that begins with the precedents of Marbury v. Madison isn't a good approach. Think of your complaint letter as a memo to your own boss. Keep it brief, precise and polite. Don't clutter your letter with emotional baggage--even if the topic is lost luggage. Dispense with the small indignities, frivolous grudges or points of personal privilege.

Don't bludgeon the airline or hotel with your clout, but don't run away from it. If you are elite, put your account number and status level on the letter. If the complaint is so serious that you might move your business elsewhere, say so. If you can move your company's account away from the airline or hotel, say so. But don't bluff. Only threaten what you are actually prepared to do. And never tell the company that you'll never do business with them again. If you proclaim yourself a lost customer, why would they care about you? There's no incentive for the company to try to make amends if you have already given them the economic death penalty.

Surprisingly, this is the key failure of most unsuccessful complaint notes that I've seen. If you write a complaint letter without asking for a tangible make-good, you are guaranteed to receive nothing more than a form letter and an unctuous, perfunctory apology. Tell the airline, hotel or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make you happy. If you don't ask, you won't receive. Request your compensation in clear and unequivocal terms.

Be smart about your make-good request. Have a sense of proportion. A one-hour flight delay doesn't entitle you to a refund. A rude front-desk clerk isn't grounds for a free night at a hotel. Asking for hard cash is always tricky, although sometimes a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you would be happy with bonus miles or points, upgrades or discount coupons, ask for those.

If the airline or hotel's first response is insufficient, tell the person who responded to your letter that you aren't satisfied. (But never return any coupons, discounts or checks they sent.) You'll be surprised how often a second letter and polite persistence yields a better offer.

Never pay for travel services by cash, check or debit card because you have legal protection if you use a credit card. Under federal credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge that you do not consider legitimate. If you are in a row with an airline, hotel or rental firm over a service they did not provide--or didn't deliver adequately--contest the charge with your credit card company. No firm likes chargebacks because they carry hard-dollar costs. Involving the credit card company is often your last, best recourse if the company refuses to negotiate with you in good faith.

One final reminder: By the terms of the 1978 law that deregulated U.S. airlines, carriers can only be sued in federal court. At least in most cases. And that's a daunting and expensive hurdle, which, of course, is exactly what the airlines want. But there is a loophole: small claims court. You can often hold airlines to account in your local, plaintiff-friendly legal venue. I haven't written about this option lately, but most of what's here remains a valid guide.