Many travelers may not be satisfied by the service they receive from their airline, and only a small percentage of those will call or write the airline with their concerns. Many passengers may feel defeated or disappointed following their experience, and oftentimes their expectations are so low they only want to vent, and aren’t even expecting a response, or at best, perhaps a flimsy excuse. However, the Department of Transportation regulates complaints received by certificated air carriers in the United States, requiring that every valid complaint receive a thorough response within a prescribed timeframe. Even after contacting their airline, many travelers still come away from their experience dissatisfied with the airline’s response to their complaint, which can range from a simple apology to a free ticket. Oftentimes writing a pointed, specific complaint can be the difference between receiving a heartfelt apology and compensation or a form letter.
Be reasonable. The key to writing an effective complaint letter is relateability. If you come across as an insane lunatic who’s just ranting for the sake of ranting, you’re not likely to be taken very seriously, and your credibility and the effectiveness of your complaint will be lost. Airlines receive complaints ranging from outlandishly trivial to valid and compensatory. Make sure your letter doesn’t go into the “lunatic” pile.
Mind the three R’s. No, not the R’s you learned in elementary school – the three R’s of writing a complaint letter. Report, Relate, and Request. First, Report the incident with the correct level of detail. Second, Relate how the incident affected your experience and caused your dissatisfaction. Third, Request a response action from the airline. After all, you’re writing the letter for a purpose; tell the airline what you want.
Be specific about your complaint, and keep it down to the highlights. Clearly state the main reason for your dissatisfaction – this is what the reader is looking for, and this is what will determine how much (if any) compensation you’re due. Ancillary complaints such as poor handling of your complaint if you addressed personnel at the airport or onboard, or other items relevant to your main complaint can help illustrate the overall deficiencies in your experience. Don’t add minutiae that will make the reader think you’re going out of your way to find fault with the airline. Mentioning that your coffee was cold or the flight was bumpy if the main purpose of your correspondence is a flight delay will come across as whiny and/or petty, and could result in a blanket response apologizing for your dissatisfaction.
Don’t make assumptions. Flight delays due to a late crew don’t indicate gross incompetence on the part of the airline or their employees, flights aren’t cancelled because they are lightly booked and the airline is trying to save money, and being told a flight is delayed due to weather when it’s eighty degrees and sunny doesn’t mean the customer service agents are lying. Focus on facts, rather than jumping to uninformed conclusions. Your correspondence will be far more effective if you come across as a reasonable person with an understanding for the true complexities of modern airline operations.
Tell the truth. If you lie, you will be found out, and you will most likely be corrected. If the delay was two hours, don’t say it was six. If the flight cost $200, don’t say it was $400. If your bag was a hundred pounds, don’t say it was twenty. The respondant to your letter or e-mail is going to have all this information available to them, and you’ll save yourself embarassment if you don’t over-embellish.
Don’t demand the deed to the airline. Feel free to specify what sort of compensation you feel is appropriate, but make sure it matches the inconvenience. Many airlines will compensate with mileage, or credit for future flights, and many airlines will use a scale that reaches its upper limits when it matches the fare you paid, taking into account other factors such as elite status and class of service. Most offenses, no matter how grievous, will cause an airline to offer you two free roundtrip First Class tickets to Bali if you paid a $99 special fare to Orlando. Airlines will typically compensate in cases where they failed to perform as could be reasonably expected, such as operate on time, deliver checked baggage, give correct information regarding schedules, airport locations, policies, etc. Airlines will not typically compensate in situations where the passenger is disputing the fairness of a policy, employee rudeness, situations where the writer was not directly involved, situations beyond the airline’s control (such as involving other passengers or connecting flights on other airlines).
If you’re out for blood, you won’t get it. If your complaint involves the treatment you received from a specific employee, company responses to the employee can range from counseling to termination, depending on the severity of the complaint and the employee’s past performance. Don’t expect, however, to be included in any part of that discussion. Privacy concerns keep airlines from disclosing information about employee’s performance records or disciplinary action. Similarly, documents such as investigation reports, maintenance records, and other internal communications are also not released to complaining passengers.
In short, by keeping your correspondence focused, directed, and on-topic, you’ll not only provide the airline with valuable information toward improving your next experience, you’ll also ensure you receive effective service recovery in the event your experience was disappointing.
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