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How To Get Compensation When Flights Go Wrong

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No one likes a complainer, but there are instances when speaking up about a bad travel experience is justified. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr explains how and when to seek recourse for delays, cancellations and service failures.

Most of us have witnessed other travelers complaining about delays, cancellations and other issues at the airport — one recent example being the massive delays caused by a Delta computer outage. The passenger may or may not rightly be due compensation, but the Hollywood-worthy scene they’re creating is not required, and it’s certainly not helping his or her case. Today, I’ll cover how and when to approach an airline for compensation when you encounter issues before, after or during a flight.

Know When Compensation Is Justified

One of many airport systems breaking could cause delays . Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
One of many airport systems breaking could cause delays. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

There are times when you should speak up and request compensation, while other times you have to sit patiently and make the best of the situation. Here are times when you should not expect airline compensation:

  • Weather From a safety perspective, it’s a good thing that your airline doesn’t want to take off on an icy runway or fly through a severe thunderstorm cell. Weather delays extend to the incoming aircraft being delayed and weather at your destination, so if you’re in sunny LAX and your plane is coming from tornado alley in IAH, don’t demand compensation when your flight is delayed due to a late inbound aircraft.
  • Air traffic control Our skies will only continue to get busier and busier, which is why I’d never relish a day in the life of an air traffic controller. They have the ultimate say on ground and air operations. If the pattern is full, don’t expect compensation for a delay.
  • Airport equipment faults — Airports may look like big open spaces, but there are lots of moving parts. Runways close and baggage systems go down for unplanned maintenance. If equipment outside of your airline’s control breaks, don’t expect the airline to compensate you.
  • Your own schedule changes — Life happens to all of us, but if the reason for you change or miss your flight is personal, don’t expect the airline to compensate you (this includes bad traffic getting to the airport).
  • Multiple schedule changes — This is probably the scenario that frustrates most people who think they are due compensation, but it’s completely avoidable. If an airline notifies you that your flight is delayed, you’re still responsible for being at the gate at the originally scheduled departure time. I’ve seen flights delayed and revert back to the original schedule often enough that I would never risk leaving late for the airport or staying in the lounge a bit longer. If this happens and you miss your flight because it ended up leaving on time, do not expect compensation from the airline.

The above situations on their own do not warrant compensation requests. However, even with the above scenarios, airlines operating in the US or European Union may owe you compensation if certain laws are broken. Here are the laws that must be followed, along with other situations where you should request compensation:

Seats and screens from the back.
A broken seat or no working air conditioning on board are perfectly acceptable reasons to speak up.
  • EU 261/2004 — TPG has covered this legislation from the European Union in detail. Basically, if you’re flying on an EU-licensed carrier operating to or from an airport within an EU member state, or on a non-EU-licensed carrier operating from an airport in an EU member state, you’re entitled to some fairly substantial compensation if any of a few situations occur. In the case of denied boarding, a canceled flight, overbooked flight, or a delay of five hours or greater, you can receive up to 600 euros, plus the carrier still has to transport you to your ticketed destination. In order to qualify for compensation, delays or cancelations cannot be caused by weather and you must be notified of changes within two weeks of the original departure date. There are quite a few more details to read and sort through, but it has definitely come in handy for many travelers.
  • USDOT Passenger Bill of Rights — The US Department of Transportation enacted an airline passenger bill of rights in 2012 which covers a few scenarios in which you should be entitled to compensation from the airline. These situations include lost/delayed luggage, involuntary bumps and tarmac delays of three hours or more. Make sure you read and understand all of the rules and requirements before requesting compensation.
  • Broken seat/environmental equipment — This is a situation where I don’t feel bad about complaining, especially because a broken seat or non-functioning air conditioning affects passengers on future flights as well. Plus, the airline may not know that a seat is broken unless a passenger speaks up. Everything from inflight entertainment to headrests, footrests, armrests and all the fancy utilities on business and first-class seats should be working properly. Likewise, if an air conditioning unit in the sky or auxiliary power unit (APU) on the ground is not functioning, it can get very hot (or cold) very quickly — and you should feel free to speak up.
  • Poor service — This can be tricky, as you’re judging something subjective. Rude service is never OK; flight attendants more interested in chatting in the galley than helping passengers during boarding isn’t OK; and anything you know to be unsafe is also not OK. However, you being rude back to the FAs will rarely make the situation any better.
Spilled wine due to turbulence doesn't entitle you to 10,000 miles. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Spilled wine due to turbulence doesn’t entitle you to 10,000 miles. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
  • Delays and cancellations due to the airline — Maintenance, equipment swaps or overbooking that causes involuntary bumps and changes in crew availability all fall underneath this umbrella. The recent Delta situation, in which all flights were temporarily grounded due to a computer outage, also fits under this category — passengers whose flights were canceled or delayed more than three hours received $200 travel vouchers.

Requesting Compensation the Right Way

When it comes to requesting compensation for flight issues, honey catches more flies than vinegar. Here are the keys to going about it in the right way:

  • Keep it brief — There may have been 17 things that went wrong or eight of your pet peeves the flight attendant triggered, but no one wants to hear all of that, and you immediately begin to discredit your complaint. Stick to the single item that most negatively impacted your flight — or two at most.
  • Remove the emotion — Calmly stated facts in person or in writing will bring a sense of professionalism and sincerity to your complaint. Using all caps and exclamation points or yelling at customer service will not advance your case.
  • Know what you want — Airline representatives need to know what will appease you in order to rectify a situation. Have reasonable accommodations laid out which the airline can meet if you have been wronged. Present the problem, and make the customer service agent’s job easier by also presenting the solution.
  • Complain to the right person — You have to state your case to someone empowered to correct the situation. If the person you’re speaking with can’t grant what you think is fair (no, free first-class flights anywhere you want to go is not fair compensation) then ask to speak to a supervisor who is empowered.
  • Keep documentation — Nothing helps your case more than if ink on a piece of paper correlates your story to a specific fault of the airline. Keep any piece of paper you’re ever handed — including boarding passes, baggage claim tickets and original booking confirmations. You can usually upload these in the complaint forms as well.

Avenues of Complaints

A key to successfully resolving a flight gone bad for any reason is to speak up before ever leaving the airport where either the problem occurred, or where you were first notified of the problem.

Don’t let gate agents or baggage agents tell you to “talk to someone when you land in XXX.” Staying at the source of the problem will usually result in much quicker action than landing somewhere four hours away and talking to people who had nothing to do with what happened.

When you can’t talk to someone immediately in person, your first course of action should be reaching out to the airline’s social media team. These teams are empowered to help, I’ve accomplished some amazing things talking with these good folks, usually on Twitter.

Filling out online forms like this screen from AA.com is my least favorite was to resolve my difference with an airline.
Filling out online forms, like this one from AA.com, should be a last resort in resolving an issue with an airline.

You can also complain and request compensation via the standard complaint forms which most airlines have available online. Remember to keep it brief, emotion free and state upfront what you think is fair compensation. However, this option should be your last resort, since you’ll likely have better success on the phone, in person or via social media.

How Much is Fair?

This is one of the most common questions I see on FlyerTalk and other message boards. You must be reasonable in what you expect. If the airline safely flew you from origin to destination, you’re not entitled to a full refund. If you want frequent flyer miles, use TPG’s latest monthly valuations and do the math to decide how many miles you think you deserve given whatever happened. Decide on a reasonable amount for cash/voucher/miles that you feel will rectify the situation, and politely ask for that number.

Money doesn't grow on trees, so don't expect unreasonable compensation from airlines. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, so don’t expect unreasonable compensation from airlines. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

You could say that the airlines set themselves up for failure when they began handing out miles as compensation. Now, many flyers go into a flight looking for any issues that could earn them a few thousand bonus miles if they complain. However, I also think this has come full circle, as airlines have noticeably dialed back the amount of miles they’ll award — sometimes they’ll even simply offer an apology as compensation.

Bottom Line

The best thing you can do to help yourself through tough travel experiences is to maintain a positive attitude. That’s obviously easier said than done, but recognize that a flight is merely the means of reaching your destination, and it hopefully doesn’t define your entire trip.

Finally, if your flight is canceled, delayed or interrupted; if your baggage is lost or delayed; or if any other situation arises, make sure you check the insurance provided by your credit card used to buy the tickets. These policies are often much more inclusive compared to when (and what) an airline will give you.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

What compensation have you received, and how did you effectively request it?

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