The Worst Airline Complaint I’ve Ever Seen — Where Simple Steps Could Have Made It All Better

Things go wrong when you travel. The most important thing is always safety, and while it’s frustrating when there are mechanical delays or flight diversions I’d always prefer to take the delay than push forward.

I wish that airlines did a better job communicating when things go wrong. However it’s often a game of telephone with two cups and a string. There’s uncertainty about the situation, about the plan to fix it, and between plenty of moving pieces — actually fixing the plane, what alternatives are available, and this all takes time to sort through.

Meanwhile coordinating all of these pieces is hard enough, getting tentative conclusions out to passengers is even harder.

One of my great frustrations is how poor American Airlines is at updating departure times. They’ll generally show ‘on time’ even when a flight cannot possibly board on-time (for instance there’s no aircraft at scheduled boarding time, something that would have been obviously predictable far in advance) and they won’t revised departure times until the previous one passes. That makes it tough for customers to get eat, to work productively in the lounge, it wastes time rather than respecting it.

My cousin shares a story of an American Airlines diversion to Wichita that goes off the rails.

The author is a writer, so it’s a well-written story, but it’s also the perfect example of how not to complain to an airlinein many ways it’s the worst-constructed airline complaint I’ve seen: too much minutiae, the letter to American Airlines is over 2600 words. It’s not surprising that American’s customer service isn’t parsing the whole thing and offered her a $200 voucher for future travel rather than even getting through to addressing what she’s requesting (refund).

Her story does describe a terrible experience that begins with a mechanical diversion on a September flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles — and follows with poor communication and crew timing out.

  • The aircraft was leaking hydraulic fluid and so they made an emergency landing in Wichita. An experienced flyer isn’t going to complain about the emergency landing procedures or having to wait to be inspected on touchdown before heading to the terminal. But it’s unnerving for the average customer for sure.

  • The passenger reports that there were seats available on United but that American wouldn’t rebook customers onto the other airline.

  • After 4 hours it’s determined that the plane won’t be fixed that night. Crew is timing out so they’re being sent to a hotel. Passengers will be sent to a hotel as well. Getting vouchers takes over an hour.

  • More passengers get sent to the hotel than there are rooms. They get food vouchers but are arriving at the hotel just as the restaurant is closing.

  • Everyone is told they’ll be departing at 6 a.m. the next morning, but when passengers show up they learn crew haven’t yet met required rest and flight attendants aren’t there. They’re told they’ll be assigned to an aircraft and crew arriving at 10:30 a.m., but won’t actually leave until 3:30 p.m.

  • Some passengers told to return at 2 p.m. but it appears the plane leaves around 11 a.m. without them.

  • She gets rebooked onto a one-stop flight arriving in Los Angeles after 8 p.m., missing her reason to be in Los Angeles. She asks to be booked home to New York, but is refused (‘buy a ticket to New York and maybe you’ll get a refund’) or to be booked to San Diego where she’s scheduled to go next but they won’t change her destination.

  • It sounds like she was rebooked onto United, given she notes a connection through Houston. It’s not American’s fault that the Houston flight is delayed and that she’s rebooked onto United through Denver (arriving at about the same time). Again, too much extraneous information for a complaint.

The author ends “demand[ing] a full refund .. and vouchers for future travel.” But the start of her blog post complains that she was given a $200 voucher because she’s “unlikely to board an American Airlines plane in the next 12 months.”

There’s no question that American Airlines:

  • Made the right decision to divert for mechanical reasons
  • Followed procedures for crew rest
  • Communicated poorly with customers

Seen through the lens of an infrequent traveler everything in the note makes sense. And early on the passenger’s request to declare trip in vain, return to her origin and receive a refund should have been honored. What’s more American should have put passengers they could have onto United flights the day before.

However there are a lot of things that a passenger could have known and done earlier. And that’s really the point, learning something from a story like this.

  1. Know your own flight options to get where you’re going. If there’s a hydraulic leak, in an outstation, there’s a good chance it’s going to be awhile. So what other flights does your airline offer, and what seats are available? I’d use ExpertFlyer to check loads but if you don’t subscribe (and they offer 5 day free trials) check to see what flights you can still buy.

    I like to get backed up onto a flight to have options, agents just add another flight to the reservation without reissuing the ticket. Then I’ll either fly my original (get the agent at the gate to clean up the record before flying) or actually change flights (get them to reissue).

    However American Airlines may not be willing to do that over the phone, or for non-elites. If there’s something else flying within a couple of hours, take it. Assume that any delay is more likely than not to take longer than you’re initially told.

  2. Know your rights. If you’re delayed several hours and just want to return to your point of origin for a refund that’s called a ‘trip in vain’. Ask for that specifically.

  3. Predict what’s going to happen when the airline doesn’t tell you. Mechanical delays often roll. The airline doesn’t want to say a delay is going to take longer than the minimum amount of time it could take, passengers will leave and they’re difficult to get back. And they really don’t know, they’re initially guessing.

    Get information that lets you make your own educated guesses. Ask when your flight crew will run out of duty time. And ask how long they need to rest before they can fly you again.

    It’s possible the airline will ferry another plane and even one with a crew, but having more information lets you compare what the airline is telling you to reality.

  4. Hang up, call back to get what is due to you. If you want a trip in vain and are told no, ask someone else. If you want to be rebooked (including on another airline) and are told no, ask someone else.

    Depending on the airport and what access you have there are several avenues you can take to get help. There’s the ticket counter, customer service counter, and gate. There’s the phone and the lounge. And there’s twitter. If mom says no ask dad.

  5. Don’t rely on the airline for amenities. If it’s late and I want a hotel room I’m not going to stand in a line more than an hour, that’s eating away my rest time and it’s eating away time I might have dinner. I’m not going to wait for a hotel shuttle that in this case wasn’t coming.

    I’m going to arrange my own transportation, accommodations, and meals. And I’m going to save receipts and submit them to my credit card company’s trip delay coverage which will frequently provide up to $500 or the cost of my ticket in reimbursement.

  6. Complain concisely. Assume that the person reading your complaint doesn’t have time to work through a narrative, they are trying to process each complaint quickly and come up with the right form response. So include only the most salient details without added commentary.

Frustrations happen during travel, whether because of mechanical issues or weather. And airline communications can fail customers, too. But you can get information and empower yourself to make the best of the situation when things do go wrong.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Regarding point #5 – definitely the case for credit card protections – however, company-issued corporate cards usually don’t have that level of travel protection. Though a hotel should be reimbursable on biz travel, if you’ve got a limited travel budget, it may be tough not to take the “free” room at the crappy hotel than stay somewhere you want to stay at full price. Especially when traveling with other people in your company.

  2. Wow. Yeah, if you can’t fit your complaint and requirement into a tweet to the airline, it’s too long. With irrop situations the staff will be overworked — requesting a rebook on another airline probably won’t work. Saying that UA1234 has space and will get you there in time is actionable.

  3. I get your points, BUT once again the responsibility is being shoved off onto the victim.

    I know my own business quite well, but over and over again this site and others make the customer the locus of responsibility when it comes to purchasing transportation.

    Yes, we must often, as a matter of self-defense, fight our fight alone. That does not make that set-up right or reasonable, or heaven knows, decent.

    That only means that we are not protected. Within giant corporations and huge governmental agencies no one is looking out for the fare-paying customer.

    If you are in Houston or Puerto Rico and your insurance company says your expensive flood insurance doesn’t count because the damage was caused by water-bearing wind, not flood, you’re still screwed.

    Tips on writing a more concise complaint and using the right words do not address the inequity and misery inflicted BY THE AIRLINES this time.

    Yes, it is just great that the airline did not try to fly a plane with a hydraulic leak, but corporate responsibilities do not end with simply not killing the passengers.

  4. Learned the hard way on the amenities. Stuck in DFW and spent an hour to get a voucher for some no-name place miles away in Arlington with no shuttle service. Absolutely refused to put me in an airport hotel even though there was room (of which I am sure because I got on a shuttle and threw myself on the mercy of the Sheraton).

  5. “Know your rights. If you’re delayed several hours and just want to return to your point of origin for a refund that’s called a ‘trip in vain’. Ask for that specifically.”
    You can ask all you want but when the person staffing the counter is of the lowest level (seniority) with about two minutes worth of experience, they are not going to know how to do that (if they were even trained about it). Basically, passengers (no matter how well traveled) will invariably dealing with employees that don’t have a clue and/or have no “authority” or ability to think out of the box.

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