When passengers comment on airline service, most airlines do listen. They analyze and keep track of the complaints and compliments they receive and use the information to determine what the public wants and to identify problem areas that need special attention. They also try to resolve individual complaints. Like other businesses, airlines have a lot of discretion in how they respond to problems. While you do have some rights as a passenger, your demands for compensation will probably be subject to negotiation and the kind of action you get depends in large part on the way you go about complaining. Start with the airline. Before you call or write to DOT or some other agency for help with an air travel problem, you should give the airline a chance to resolve it. As a rule, airlines have trouble-shooters at the airports (they're usually called Customer Service Representatives) who can take care of many problems on the spot. They can arrange meals and hotel rooms for stranded passengers, write checks for denied boarding compensation, arrange luggage repairs and settle other routine claims or complaints

If you can't resolve the problem at the airport and want to file a complaint, it's best to call or write the airline's consumer office at its corporate headquarters. Take notes at the time the incident occurs and jot down the names of the carrier employees with whom you dealt. Keep all of your travel documents (ticket receipts, baggage check stubs, boarding passes, etc.) as well as receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred as a result of the mishandling. Here are some helpful tips should you choose to write a letter.

* Type the letter and, if at all possible, limit it to one page in length.

* Include your daytime telephone number (with area code).

* No matter how angry you might be, keep your letter businesslike in tone and don't exaggerate what happened. If the complaint sounds very vehement or sarcastic, you might wait a day and then consider rewriting it.

* Describe what happened, and give dates, cities, and flight numbers or flight times.

* Send copies, never the originals, 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 anyone who might have been especially helpful.

* Don't clutter up your complaint with petty gripes that can obscure what you're really angry about.

* Let the airline know if you've suffered any special inconvenience or monetary losses.

* Say just what you expect the carrier to do to make amends. An airline may offer to settle your claim with a check or some other kind of compensation, possibly free transportation. You might want a written apology from a rude employee or reimbursement for some loss you incurred-but the airline needs to know what you want before it can decide what action to take.

* Be reasonable. If your demands are way out of line, your letter might earn you a polite apology and a place in the airline's crank files.

If you follow these guidelines, the airlines will probably treat your complaint seriously. Your letter will help them to determine what caused your problem, as well as to suggest actions the company can take to keep the same thing from happening to other people.

Contacting the Department of Transportation

Complaints about airline service may be registered with DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD). You can call, write or use our web form.

You may call the ACPD 24 hours a day at 202-366-2220 (TTY 202-366-0511) to record your complaint. Calls are returned Monday through Friday, generally between 7:30 am and 5:00 pm Eastern time.

You may send us a letter at:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590

To send us a complaint, comment or inquiry electronically, please use our web form at

If you write, please be sure to include your address and a daytime telephone number, with area code. Letters from consumers help us spot problem areas and trends in the airline industry. We use our complaint files to document the need for changes in DOT's consumer protection regulations and, where warranted, as the basis for enforcement action. In addition, every month we publish a report with information about the number of complaints we receive about each airline and what problems people are having. You can write or call us for a free single copy of this Air Travel Consumer Report, which also has statistics that the airlines file with us on flight delays, oversales and mishandled baggage. (Data from recent reports are online on this home page.) If your complaint is about something you feel is a safety or security hazard, write to the Federal Aviation Administration:

Assistant Administrator for System Safety ASY-100 Federal Aviation Administration 800 Independence Avenue, S.W. Washington, D.C. 20591

or call: (800) FAA-SURE. After office hours, if you want to report something that you believe is a serious safety hazard, call the Aviation Safety Hotline at 1-800-255-1111.

Local consumer help programs

In most communities there are consumer help groups that try to mediate complaints about businesses, including airlines and travel agencies.

* Most state governments have a special office that investigates consumer problems and complaints. Sometimes it is a separate division in the governor's or state attorney general's office. Check your telephone book under the state government's listing.

* Many cities and counties have consumer affairs departments that handle complaints. Often you can register your complaint and get information over the phone or in person.

* A number of newspapers and radio or TV stations operate "Hot Lines" or "Action Lines" where individual consumers can get help. Consumer reporters, with the help of volunteers, try to mediate complaints and may report the results as a news item. The possible publicity encourages companies to take fast action on consumer problems when they are referred by the media. Some Action Lines, however, may not be able to handle every complaint they receive. They often select the most severe problems or those that are most representative of the kinds of complaints they receive.

Your last resort

If nothing else works, small claims court might be the best way for you to help yourself. Many cities have these courts to settle disputes involving relatively small amounts of money and to reduce the red tape and expense that people generally fear when they sue someone. An airline can generally be sued in small claims court in any jurisdiction where it operates flights or does business. You can usually get the details of how to use the small claims court in your community by contacting your city or county office of consumer affairs, or the clerk of the court. As a rule, small claims court costs are low, you don't need a lawyer, and the procedures are much less formal and intimidating than they are in most other types of courts. See "Other Sources of Information" at the end of this pamphlet for details on how to order a free brochure, Consumers Tell It to the Judge.

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