How to File for Compensation With Low-Cost Carriers
If you're even a semi-frequent traveler, chances are you've experienced first-hand how things can go wrong on a trip. Whether it's a flight delay, an unexpectedly long security line or a last-minute equipment swap, a host of issues can pop up and impact an otherwise meticulously planned itinerary. Unfortunately, some of these problems are more acute when you elect to fly a low-cost carrier, so today I want to go through the process for filing for compensation with some of these airlines when things go awry.
The inspiration for this post came from TPG reader Matt S. and his less-than-stellar trip aboard Norwegian earlier this year. In a nutshell, Matt had booked a round-trip flight to London (LGW) in the carrier's Premium cabin but then encountered an equipment swap (and subsequent downgrade) on the outbound flight and a lengthy delay on the return flight. While he did score a deal on the flight, his experience has led him to swear never to fly Norwegian again.
Unfortunately, low-cost carriers (LCCs for short) are a bit more prone to these types of issues for a few key reasons:
- Smaller global networks: Many LCCs operate entirely independently of other airlines, and this can come back to bite you when things go wrong. Without a fellow alliance member or joint venture partner, you're typically stuck with the carrier you originally booked.
- More infrequent departures: On certain routes, an LCC may fly a single flight just 2 or 3 days a week. If your flight is canceled, you can't just hop on the carrier's next flight, as you might be able to do in Atlanta on Delta or Chicago-O'Hare on American or United. Once again, you're stuck.
- Less flexible fleet: LCCs are, by definition, a leaner operation than legacy airlines. Lower costs = lower prices (or so the theory goes). As a result, you typically won't find "spare" aircraft sitting around in case of unexpected maintenance issues, the exact issue that Matt S. faced.
Granted these are all very broad generalizations, but they do represent the added risk of booking with one of these carriers.
So what happens if something goes wrong? Here's a quick rundown of how to request compensation from five well-known LCCs: Allegiant, Frontier, Norwegian, Spirit and WOW.
Allegiant has been around for roughly 20 years and prides itself on connecting under-served markets for leisure travelers. When I lived in Las Vegas, I used to marvel at the departures board at McCarran Airport and the far-flung destinations to which the carrier flew. Unfortunately, this model isn't always seamless, as a planeful of passengers discovered over the summer when they were rebooked on a flight four days later. The airline even assumes no responsibility for delays or cancellations per its Contract of Carriage despite an aging fleet (one that was criticized in an extensive study by the Tampa Bay Times last year):
Carrier shall not be liable for any failure or delay in operating any flight due to causes beyond Carrier’s control, including but not limited to, acts of God, governmental actions, fire, weather, mechanical difficulties, Air Traffic Control, strikes or labor disputes, or inability to obtain fuel for the flight in question.
However, if the "delay is significant" and Allegiant can't accommodate you on another of its flights, you can obtain a refund of the unused portion of your ticket, though this (of course) doesn't do much good if you still need to get from Point A to Point B.
Here's how to submit a request for compensation with Allegiant:
- Go to www.allegiantair.com.
- Scroll to the bottom and click "Contact Us."
- At the top left, click on "Email Us."
- Select "Flight Issue" from the first drop-down menu, then complete the rest of the information (including your confirmation number and a detailed description of your experience and request for compensation).
- Click "Submit Form."
If you'd rather not submit your complaint via email, you could call the airline's Reservations Center/Customer Car line at (702) 505-8888. However, I'd personally prefer the automatic documentation of a written request via email.
Another LCC with a large presence in the US is Frontier, though unlike Allegiant, Frontier operates a relatively new fleet and actually received a 2015 award from the FAA for maintenance excellence. That being said, the carrier's route map is all over the place, with many routes being served by a single flight each day (or even less frequently).
Here's how to submit a request for compensation with Frontier:
- Go to www.flyfrontier.com.
- Scroll to the bottom and click "Contact Us."
- Find the Feedback section and click on the link to fill out the Feedback form.
- Select your category from the drop-down (Delays/Cancellations/Diversions or Refund Request are probably the two best bets), then complete the rest of the information.
- Attach any supporting documentation.
- Click "Continue" to submit your request.
You can also reach the airline's Customer Relations office by calling (801) 401-9000 and saying "feedback and concerns" when prompted.
The next carrier on the list is Norwegian, with which Matt S. encountered problems. With exclusively long-haul flights out of the US (and shorter flights within Europe), Norwegian has popularized the low fare for international travel, an appealing strategy to many. However, despite a fleet that includes numerous 787 aircraft, the carrier sometimes struggles to operate effectively.
Here's how to submit a request for compensation with Norwegian:
- Go to www.norwegian.com.
- At the bottom, under the heading "Customer Service," click on "Help and Contact."
- Scroll down and expand the "Claims or Feedback" section.
- Select the appropriate option ("Delay or Cancellation" or "Ticket Refund" will likely apply to the majority of issues).
- Click through the pages that follow to submit your claim.
Norwegian's site actually is the most user-friendly when it comes to these types of issues, both in making it easy to find the information and easy to submit a request for compensation after the fact.
One of the most notorious LCCs in the US is Spirit. I'm sure many of you saw clips of the chaos that ensued in May 2017 when several flights out of the airline's hub in Fort Lauderdale (FLL) were canceled, and one of its planes caused a hubbub in August when it ran into issues on a Los Angeles (LAX) taxiway. Spirit also ranked last in the 2016 iteration of the American Customer Satisfaction Index travel report, and it also took the last spot in our Best and Worst Airlines In the United States analysis from earlier in the year.
There's one thing that Spirit has going for it: low prices (which it calls "Bare Fares"), though you'll wind up forking over additional fees for virtually everything.
Here's how to submit a request for compensation with Spirit:
- Go to www.spirit.com.
- At the bottom in the "Need Help?" section, click on "Contact Us."
- Click "EMAIL HELP" at the top right.
- Select the option for your complaint using the drop-down.
- Complete the rest of the information, then click "Submit."
Spirit does have a general phone number to call, (801) 401-222, though this is listed as a number to book and/or manage reservations.
The newest carrier on the list is WOW air, an airline that has grown its US footprint over the last few years. Like Norwegian, WOW focuses on international flights from the US, with nonstop service from 13 gateways, and also provides connecting service from Iceland to numerous spots on the European mainland. The carrier is by far the smallest on the list, though when things go awry, you want to be prepared. [Update, 3/28/2019: WOW Air has ceased operations. Find our ongoing coverage of WOW Air's collapse, and what affected passengers can do about it, here.]
Here's how to submit a request for compensation with WOW:
- Visit www.wowair.us.
- Hover over "Customer Service" at the top right, then click on "Contact Us."
- Click send us an email to submit your complaint, or click on "Our Call centers" on the right to access phone numbers to call (for the US, it's 888-209-3170.
You also have the option of logging in to My Booking with your 6-digit booking number and last name and requesting compensation. You could also visit the carrier's Claim ticket page and simply enter the details of your issue.
Which of these airlines is most likely to disappoint?
If you're considering booking a trip on one of these airlines, it's important to look at the data and (ideally) identify which one is most likely to let you down, from an operational standpoint that is. Here's a quick rundown of how these five airlines did when it came to delays in the most recently month available: September. (NOTE: All facts come from Flight Stats' Airline On-Time Performance Reports page.)
|Airline||Percentage of Flights |
Delayed 15+ minutes
The average LCC experienced a 15+ minute delay on just over 22% of its flights in September 2017, so all of the carriers actually scored better than this average. However, these delays averaged 50 minutes across all LCCs, placing three of our five candidates below average when it comes to these delays.
If you look back over the preceding months, you'll see a similar pattern. Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit all typically experience an average delay of over an hour, while Norwegian and WOW stick closer to the 30- to 40-minute mark. While this is far from a guarantee that something will go wrong, there's also no clear winner of an airline that will typically not have issues.
Will submitting a request do anything?
So if you go through the process of submitting a request for compensation with these LCCs, what are the chances of actually receiving anything? Well, it all depends, and in many cases may come back to an airline's contract of carriage. Even though you've probably never read one of them from start to finish, you agree to be bound by it the second you purchase a ticket. An airline can thus fall back on that document as justification for not paying anything more than what they are required to pay.
Speaking of which, this is a great time to remind you of the European Union's passenger rights that would apply to both Norwegian and WOW air. Unlike other issues you may encounter, these are mandatory laws that an airline must follow if you arrive at your destination more than 3 hours behind schedule. However, even this isn't foolproof, as Matt S. found when his flight arrived 3 hours 6 minutes late according to his watch (and Flight Aware) but just 2 hours and 54 minutes late according to Norwegian.
At the end of the day, you should always be reasonable with a request for any type of compensation. Asking for a $500 voucher after taking a trip that only set you back $100 initially will almost certainly not be approved. However, a refund of the unused portion of your ticket or another simple request has a much higher likelihood of being honored.
Low-cost carriers (LCCs) have unlocked the world of travel to many by offering low prices and service on routes to under-utilized cities both here in the US and abroad. While this is unquestionably a positive, flying with these airlines can be a bit challenging, especially when things go wrong. If you happen to be on one of these carriers and encounter difficulties, be sure to research your exact "rights" for what you can/can't do and then follow the steps above. That's no guarantee of being compensated and made whole, but it at least gets you off on the right foot!