What to do when the airline keeps you grounded

First, don't lose your temper

then, calmly seek a solution

Strategies

April 03, 2005|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

When travel arrangements go awry, take a deep breath, maybe two, before you lodge your complaint.

Too often, travelers go ballistic at an airline check-in counter when they don't get their expected upgrade or learn that their flight has been canceled. Screaming at the bearer of bad news will get you nowhere. A calm approach can elicit help from the agent. Put yourself in his or her shoes.

Last month, my wife and I checked in for a Sunday evening flight from Newark Airport to Chicago, only to be told our flight had been canceled for air traffic control reasons -- bad weather and air congestion between New York and Chicago. The agent checked our records on her computer and said I was protected on a 3:10 flight the next afternoon, but my wife was not.

Well, that could have evoked a fiery response. But knowing that the agent had nothing to do with the flight cancellation, we calmly and firmly asked her to explore other flight options.

The only alternative that evening was Newark-Detroit-Chicago, not a good one. The agent worked the computer and phone, and finally got my wife on the Monday afternoon flight. The agent also suggested several hotels for an overnight stay, along with instructions on where to find the hotel shuttle.

Before we left, she urged us to check in at least three hours before the Monday flight. We did, and got good seats together. The agent took the sting out of a thorny situation. My screaming at her would have achieved nothing.

A few weeks ago, a reader -- let's call him Joe because he asked us not to use his name -- e-mailed the Chicago Tribune Travel section with a tale of woe. Last July, he used frequent-flier miles to book a flight between Chicago and Hawaii for a late March vacation for him, his wife and 20-month-old daughter. When his wife went online to check for better seat availability, she couldn't find their reservation.

When Joe phoned the carrier, he was told that records showed he or someone with all his flight information had canceled the reservation. He said he had not phoned the airline in months.

Joe and the reservations agent went back and forth about who could have made the call. He asked to speak with a manager. There were, he said, more charges and counter-charges about who could have purported to be Joe.

Finally, the manager was able to resolve the bad situation and got Joe and his family on the outbound flight he had originally booked, and a return on a not-so-good flight. Joe subsequently got the airline to find better flights for the return.

What went wrong with the original reservation? The carrier checked its computer file on Joe's reservation and found that, indeed, someone with the knowledge of Joe's flight did call and cancel. Who actually called, however, could not be determined from the computer records. Joe contends it was someone within the airline. The airline denies that.

Whatever the circumstances, Joe's persistence paid off. However, he was not without anxiety over his Hawaii flights.

When travel problems arise and the reservations agent or the first person you talk to can't resolve the problem, ask to speak with a manager. Or ask how you can reach the carrier's customer relations department. Do not let the problem fester.

Several Web sites -- airsafe.com and bestfares.com among them -- offer advice on how to complain about airline service. The same basic information can be used if you have beefs with a cruise line or a tour company.

Before you complain, know the rules concerning situations such as flight delays and cancellations, overbooking or lost or damaged baggage.

When you encounter a problem, make notes and get names.

If you choose to file a formal complaint, follow this advice offered by airsafe.com:

* Send a typed and signed letter by mail if you can. But even if you send an e-mail, include an address and phone number where you can be reached.

* Limit your letter to one page.

* Include copies -- not originals -- of any relevant paper work.

* Keep your letter businesslike and don't exaggerate.

* Describe what happened, and provide specifics like dates, names of other involved parties and flight numbers.

* Send copies of tickets and receipts or other documents that can back up your claim.

* Include the names of any employees who were rude or made things worse, as well as any people who might have been especially helpful.

* Stay focused and don't use your letter as a chance to complain about other issues.

* Let the airline know if you've suffered any particular inconvenience or monetary losses, and your estimate of what those losses were.

* Say what you expect the carrier to do about your situation such as a monetary settlement, some other compensation or a letter of apology.

* Be reasonable in your demands.

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