How to ‘play nice’ with airlines to get what you want

Sep 20, 2019

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We’re going to let you in on a little secret: Air travel can be tough. OK, you probably knew that one already.

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Fortunately, there is a way to make even the worst travel days much better. How? Glad you asked, dear reader. It all starts off by playing nice with airlines. You know — things you learned in kindergarten, hopefully — and the whole “treat others the way you want to be treated” thing.

The purpose of this guide is exactly that: To remind you that a little kindness can go a long way … In fact, it might just help lead to your next upgrade.

Let’s start with the gate agents. Their job is to get you on the plane as fast and as safely as possible. They can’t control the weather or mechanical problems with your plane. They can’t even control where the plane lands, or when they open the jet bridge. Pretty much all they can control, in fact, is what seat you are in — and only to an extent.

And as for you? You can control your reaction. That means if gate agents tell you your upgrade didn’t clear, the flight is delayed (again) or worse, canceled, it’s really out of their hands, so try to keep your cool. Like you, they’re just trying to get through the workday without any major stress, and I guarantee you they want to go home and binge-watch Netflix, too.

Importantly, berating them for the flight delay isn’t going to improve your chances of them improving your seat, either.

In addition to using magic words like “please” and “thank you” when you ask if there are any upgrades available, or if there’s any possibility you can be moved out of the middle seat, remember that a smile really does go a long way. Gate agents are so much more likely to help someone out who actually showed them respect and kindness, rather than the entitled or rude traveler who assumes they’re out to make their flight miserable. (Most of the time, they’re not.)

If you’re not getting far with the gate agents, or the problem is outside their sphere of influence, there’s another tactic you can try. It’s known as, “direct messaging the airline on Twitter.” Have you ever called an airline for a quick customer service question, only to be told their “hold times are longer than usual,” and rather than wait on hold, you can leave a number for them to call you back an hour later?

Same. It’s the worst.

Like many travelers, I don’t have elite status with any airline, so I always end up calling the regular ol’ customer service line and waiting on hold for eternity. Private messaging the airline on Twitter may sidestep that entire problem.

For example, I had a minor complaint about a recent Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to New York JFK. I was traveling on one of their (very) dated 767s in business class with two of my friends, and noticed that my seatbelt was stuck under my seat. One of the armrests for my friend’s seat was also, well, falling off. Instead of doing a whole song and dance with Delta over the phone, I messaged the airline’s Twitter account and got a response less than 20 minutes later. Two minutes after that, I received a credit for $100. Easy as pie.

Another time, I messaged American Airlines to request a special meal on an upcoming flight, since I was getting an error message online. Long story short: If you’re not messaging airlines on Twitter, even for basic questions or concerns, you’re wasting your time.

But even with the barrier of the internet, manners are still important. Remember, an airline’s social media team is likely juggling requests related to flight cancellations, lost luggage, service complaints and more. And that’s not an easy task.

But the corporate social team at your airline’s headquarters doesn’t fly your plane. They’re not flight attendants, and they definitely don’t control airline or airport operations. They might know a thing or two that’s going on behind the scenes, but again, kindness is key here. Take this interaction during my trip to Croatia and Budapest last summer as an example:

Instead of being the person saying, “@AmericanAir, never flying your airline again, we’ve been delayed for 40 minutes!” I calmly asked the people who are not in charge of any flight operations if they have any insight. Their job is to help you out when (and if) they can — and they often do.

American responded with a quick update less than 10 minutes later. Although they couldn’t solve the problem, it was nice to know that they heard my concerns.

I’m not the only one who agrees. Just ask Zach Honig, our editor-at-large, about his recent experience messaging United Airlines on Twitter. A quick DM to the social team helped him out in a bind, and he was able to catch his tight connection.

But don’t just take it from us — take it from the pros. Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, said, “The bottom line is, people in general prefer others who are respectful and polite. If the choice is to do a favor for someone who is contrary, versus someone who shows consideration through their words, actions and appearance, the decision is obvious.”

We asked her for her best tips for communicating with airlines (and in life) and she said, “While we should behave according to a consistent rule of decorum, when traveling with the long lines and frustrating flight delays, it’s best to be extra sensitive to those around us and use our best manners.”

We know tensions inevitably run high during air travel, but we can all do our part in keeping our cool — and who knows, it might even help you get exactly what you want.

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