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Travel Complaints Made Easy

As a publisher and writer of travel news and advice, I’m on the receiving end of a constant stream of complaints from travel consumers. A few kudos, but mostly complaints.

Wherever possible, I try to make constructive use of the criticisms, referencing them in blogs, columns, forums, and newsletters. The hope is that other travelers will benefit from the experiences of their peers.

And on a personal level, I use others’ feedback to help guide my own purchase decisions, choosing between this or that airline, one hotel or another, and so on.

Information is good, and more information is better. The goal, of course, is complete transparency.

With transparency in mind, it’s always bothered me that there isn’t a single repository of travel consumer feedback. Random data can be helpful, but if all complaints were consolidated, we’d be able to compare levels of consumer dissatisfaction among competing airlines, the way airlines’ on-time departure performance can be assessed and compared. We’d be better consumers, and the airlines would be forced to improve.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), by virtue of its consumer protection mandate, was a logical candidate to be that central repository of consumer feedback. And it has indeed been collecting and compiling travelers’ airline-related complaints, summarizing them in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.

But most travelers are either unaware of the DOT’s function in this regard, or unwilling to invest the time to write a letter that’s unlikely to result in an improved outcome. So the data collected is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. And the reports aren’t definitive and are therefore ignored. So the whole exercise has no power to change the airlines’ behavior.

It’s a vicious circle of irrelevance generating apathy, which begets further irrelevance, which leads to more apathy.

With the DOT’s recent website redesign, the agency has taken a step that has the potential to reverse that downward spiral. What they’ve done is stunningly simple: The new site features an online feedback form where travelers can easily write up and submit their complaints.

The next step: DOT must train travelers to use the new online form, so the base of data can grow to a meaningful scale. Government agencies aren’t particularly adept at such external communications campaigns, so I’m not optimistic about DOT’s chances of success in getting the word out.

But again, there’s real potential here to harness the power of information to make changes for the better.

In the long run, it may be that this is something best undertaken by a for-profit company rather than by the DOT.

When I want a first-hand consumer perspective on a hotel I’m considering, I don’t look to a government agency, I visit SmarterTravel’s sister site, TripAdvisor, which compiles and summarizes thousands of travelers’ hotel reviews. If a hotel has been critiqued by 100 travelers, and nine out of ten of the reviewers are in accord, positively or negatively, I factor that opinion into my planning.

One can imagine something similar for airline reviews.

In the meantime, by all means keep sending me your complaints. But take an extra minute to cut and paste your comments into the DOT’s new form and hit the “Submit” button. It can’t hurt, and it might help.

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