Art of Flying: How to File Effective Airline Complaints When Things Go Wrong

It doesn’t matter whether you fly several times a week or only on occasion, problems can arise due to airline fares, flights that are canceled or oversold, and ticketing issues.

In March 2020, airline complaints quadrupled when traveling came to a stand-still due to the coronavirus pandemic. Surprisingly, complaints about flight problems, delays, and cancellations were lower than normal.


The Department of Transportation received more than 4,756 airline complaints and 5,064 complaints against tour operators and travel agents. Of the complaints filed, 64.3% were for problems related to refunds. Other issues were with ticketing and reservations.

The after-effects of the pandemic, with social spacing requirements and other potential reductions in the number of available flights and staffing, could lead to the filing of more complaints.

Read on so that if things go wrong, you will know how to file an effective airline complaint.

When Something Goes Wrong

When something goes wrong, you need to take several steps to put forth a solid complaint. Here’s what you should do to get positive results.


The first step when anything goes wrong with an airline flight is to take extensive notes. Document the problem completely with the date, time, the name of the staff you deal with (they should be wearing a name badge), and exactly what happened. Take photographs of anything that might provide visual evidence of your problem.

Try to Resolve Immediately

The quickest way to reach a resolution is to make an on-the-spot complaint. If the first person you speak with does not provide satisfaction, request to speak with a supervisor.

Remain calm and polite. A screaming, hostile person turns people off and is less likely to get results. If needed, you can always file a written complaint later.

If your trip was booked through a travel agency, call and advise them of the situation. They may be able to negotiate a prompt settlement for you.

Writing Airline Complaints

When preparing an airline complaint letter, you need to provide complete information. This includes the flight number, date, and time and information from your incident notes.

Write a polite, reasonable complaint that sounds professional, not angry. Use proper grammar, capitalization, check your spelling, and keep it short.

  • Paragraph 1-2—Detail the problem, what went wrong, and if you are a frequent flyer with that airline say so
  • Paragraph 3—Request your desired resolution and specify how long you will wait before filing your complaint with the Department of Transportation and Better Business Bureau

Enclose copies of any relevant documentation, such as photographs, a copy of your ticket, or copies of documentation from your initial complaint at the airport. A reasonable compensation request is more likely to be granted than a ridiculous demand.

Do not make any threats, including an intent to bad-mouth them on social media or “I’ll never use your airline again.” There is no incentive to help a customer who is leaving.

Where to Send the Complaint

Most airlines have an email address on their webpage. Look for information in the consumer complaint or customer commitment section. Most airlines specify a time frame for responding to complaints, usually within 30-60 days.

  • American Airlines responds within 60 days
  • Delta Airlines acknowledges the complaint within 30 days and responds within 60 days
  • JetBlue responds within 30 days and provides a substantive answer within 60 days
  • Southwest Airlines responds within five days
  • Spirit Airlines acknowledges the complaint within 30 days and responds within 60 days
  • United Airlines responds within five business days

If you do not receive a response to an email inquiry within a two-month period, follow up with a written complaint through the U.S. mail.

Look at the airline website and address your letter to the president or senior vice president of customer service. If management names are not shown on the website, they can usually be found on records of the Better Business Bureau.

File Complaints With the Department of Transportation

The U.S. Department of Transportation has an online form for complaints or comments about the airline service. They are also an excellent resource for finding out what your rights are as an airline passenger.

By visiting their Aviation Consumer Protection page, you will be able to access information on all aspects of airline travel. This includes links to information on bumping and oversales, travel delays, delayed or lost baggage, discrimination, and compensation for a flight delay.

Executive Email Carpet Bomb

If all else fails, you can use a technique created by the Consumer Reports blog, Consumerist. The Executive Email Carpet Bomb (EECB) process is blasting the airline’s top executives with email. This should be used only as a last resort.

  1. Exhaust normal channels—contacting customer service, asking for a supervisor, allowing time for them to resolve the problem
  2. Write a complaint letter—be polite and professional, and include your contact information
  3. Use corporate email address format—look through the airline’s website or on Google for press releases, look at the PR flack’s email address to determine the company format, such as first [email protected] or [email protected]
  4. Compile a list of the company’s top executives—you will find this under “corporate officers” or “corporate governance” or look up the company on Google Finances under management
  5. Combine the list of company executives with the email format you found in step three to create an email list
  6. Email your complaint to everyone on the list you created
  7. Wait for a response

The trick is not to use this process except as a last resort, so it does stand out as unusual when enacted. This process usually has positive results.

Legislation Regarding Airline Rules

In October 2016, the Obama administration proposed new rules designed to assist airline travelers. Those rules include:

  • Requiring airlines to refund the checked baggage fee if the luggage is “substantially delayed”
  • Requiring travel-booking websites to disclose any financial links to airlines
  • Requiring regional carriers to report their on-time performance data

The public comment period on the proposed rules was scheduled to end on March 20, 2017. Effective March 14, 2017, the Trump administration indefinitely suspended the public comment period on those rules.

The reason given was to allow the President’s appointees to review and consider the action. No further action has been taken on these rules. If enacted, they would benefit all air travelers.

Complain Properly to Get Results

If you are unhappy about the service you receive from an airline, file your complaint with both the airline and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Airline complaints you file with the U.S. Department of Transportation are included in surveys about airline travel quality ratings and are included in the monthly Airline Travel Consumer Report. That information is what keeps consumers aware of airline problems.

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