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10 Ways to Make the Airlines Pay When They Fail You

Airlines all too often fail to provide the service you expect, and when you complain, they all too often fail to provide a satisfactory response. If an airline doesn’t fulfill its contract or causes you actual financial loss, and still stonewalls your complaint, you have some remedies—including asking for a credit-card chargeback, notifying the Department of Transportation (DOT), and even hauling the offending line into small claims court.

But in many cases, an airline’s misdeeds may not result in any measurable loss of time or money—just annoyance and inconvenience. As a case in point, a colleague at SmarterTravel recently received a lengthy email about a series of difficulties with a trip to London, starting with inadequate notification of schedule changes from the online travel agency (OTA) she used to her inability to get advance seat assignments without paying hefty fees. Clearly, none of this entailed any loss of vacation time or money—just hassle, uncertainty, and annoyance. And she obviously can’t justify a monetary claim against either the OTA or the airline.

In such situations, most of you probably shrug it off as “kismet” and get on with your lives, maybe with a vow never to use the offending airline again. But if you’re really steamed, you can take your complaint public. Here are your options:

  • Mount your own website. Early on, a few travelers were annoyed enough to mount company-specific gripe sites. is still operating; others have come and gone, as have so many airlines. You won’t see many more of these because alternatives are now much easier.
  • Post to social media. Two years ago, songwriter-performer Dave Carroll wrote and posted his performance of United Breaks Guitars on YouTube and it went viral, so far logging more than 11 million viewings. He’s since added sequels. Nobody can expect to match that impact, but social media makes it easy for you to post a complaint that will at least be accessible to millions.
  • Post to a gripe site. A few online gripe sites, including Travel Rants and, concentrate on travel. Travel is also well represented on the many general-interest gripe sites, including Consumer Complaints Board,,, The Consumerist, Epinions, Gripevine (co-founded by Dave Carroll), My3cents, Ripoff Report, and Several of these sites claim to provide assistance in getting some sort of compensation, but I haven’t heard from anyone who actually got compensation through a gripe site.
  • Post to a review site. Skytrax, the British-based site that claims to be the “world’s leading airline and airport review site,” posts reviews submitted by travelers through its site.
  • Post to TripAdvisor, the giant in the hotel review space and our sister site, which also accepts and scores airline reviews. Sister site SeatGuru accepts reviews (and complaints) about airline seating. And several guidebook and magazine sites also provide for traveler reviews and complaints. The advantage of dealing with a big review site is that far more interested travelers have access to your submission than through sites with a narrower focus.
  • Post to the Better Business Bureau. You can submit a complaint to the BBB. Check the website for a link to the office nearest the airline’s headquarters. BBB often does take action, but it probably won’t deal with a complaint that doesn’t involve some question of financial loss, contract default, or law violation.
  • Send a complaint to the Department of Transportation. The DOT accepts airline complaints by letter or online. Except with possible law violations, the DOT seldom takes up individual cases, but it includes all complaints in the summary statistics it issues—data that are widely reported.

Obviously, many of these approaches work with other travel problems, not just with an airline. Depending on how much time you want to put into your efforts, you can submit complaints to as many of these and other sites as you want. At the very least, you’ll give the airline a black mark. But don’t expect an airline to offer profuse apologies or anything of value. You’ll feel better, but don’t think anyone at the airline will lose sleep over your plight.

Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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