Navigating the Abyss of Airline Customer Service

Steps for getting a complaint resolved

I flew the friendly skies for my honeymoon last month. The honeymoon was great, but my flight experience was a nightmare. I think the passengers in “Snakes on a Plane” had it better than I did.

I suffer from severe food allergies, so traveling is always a challenge for me. I prefer to travel by car, but this time around, a plane was the only way to get to my destination. Since air is re-circulated on a plane, it is dangerous (not to mention potentially deadly) for me to be around certain foods.

In the past, I’ve asked for–and received–accommodations, such as an in-flight announcement, asking passengers to refrain from eating potentially life-threatening foods (nuts and shellfish) during their flight. But this time, when I made the flight attendant aware of my special needs and asked for an announcement, he vehemently refused.

I let him know that my request had been granted on this particular airline before without a problem and that this was no mere preference–my health was at stake.

Still denied.

Needless to say, my husband and I were incensed. I was annoyed by the fact that I not only had to sit through a three-hour flight fearing for my safety, but that we’d have to cancel our return flight with this airline and book it with another. (In case you’re wondering, we booked our new flight with AirTran Airways. They accommodated me without hesitation. I  recommend AirTran to anyone with a situation similar to mine.)

Changing our flight arrangements meant a $300 cancellation fee and $430 for the new flight. We would also have to pay more than $400 for the flight my husband and I wouldn’t even be on. My mission:  to get a full refund for that flight. The flight and hotel were booked through Orbitz, so handling the complaint was a bit tricky. Here’s how to navigate the abyss of airline customer service departments:

Make the call. Your first step is to call–not write–about your complaint. This ensures faster service. In my case, our first communication was with Orbitz, who then contacted the airline’s customer service and explained the situation. When you call, explain why you’re dissatisfied and tell the representative how you want the situation to be handled. For example, if you want a refund, ask for it.

Don’t take no for an answer. At first, our request was denied by the airline. If this happens to you, ask the representative to transfer you to a manager. Often, the manager is able to do things a representative is not authorized to. Once I spoke to a manager, I was able to get the $300 cancellation fee waived. I was also offered two free tickets on any flight with the same airline. Free tickets are great but it wasn’t solving the problem. One lesson to take away from this: Don’t accept a resolution if it doesn’t directly address your complaint. We accepted the fee waiver but declined the free tickets. We wanted a full refund.

Follow up. After my husband and I returned home from our honeymoon, I went to the offending airline’s Website and found an e-mail address for their customer complaint department. I sent an e-mail detailing my experience on the flight and asked for a refund for the full value of the tickets for the flight we couldn’t take. Even though we had already complained via phone and received a waiver for the cancellation fee, I wanted to let them know I meant business. Persistence is key.

Celebrate. Success! About three days letter, I received an e-mail saying that the full refund had been granted. And about three days after that, my husband’s credit card had been credited for the full amount. Be persistent and stick to your guns. You just might get what you asked for.

Sheiresa Ngo is the Consumer Affairs editor at Black Enterprise.

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  • Nadja

    Thanks for this article. I’m in negotiations with American Airlines right now. I have to cancel a trip I booked for this summer due to health reasons (I even have a doctor’s note). I asked for a waiver of the rebooking fee for myself and my minor children. The airline insists the kids could fly by themselves, never mind the lay-overs and customs stops and the fact that I’d have to leave them behind in a foreign country!