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Dispatches: How to Complain

Whether it’s lost luggage, a noisy hotel room or a rental car snafu, travelers have an awful lot to complain about these days. Take the airlines, whose mishaps are tracked by The Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT receives thousands of complaints every year, about everything from mishandled baggage and delayed flights to passengers who were denied boarding. For example, in the six month period from Janaury 2006 to June 2006, the DOT reported that major American carriers had 33,513 instances of involuntary denied boarding. In layman’s terms, that’s called “bumping” and it’s a big jump from the previous year, when 25,041 passengers were denied boarding during the same time period.

(Photo courtesy of LAX)

But it’s one thing to complain and another to complain effectively. Before registering a complaint, travelers should have some knowledge of their rights, since buying an airplane ticket, checking into a hotel room or signing a car rental agreement is entering a legal agreement.

Several websites spell out some of these rights. The DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division is a good one. There are also independent sites, such as Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel and The Consumer Travel Rights Center. The airlines have spelled out their obligations very clearly and each major carrier has published a “Conditions of Carriage,” which is available on airline websites. And the website of The Better Business Bureau of New York has published some online help for air travelers. It’s a reminder that airlines do not guarantee their schedules.

With any situation that warrants a complaint, it’s best to try and resolve it then and there, when the problem occurs. Not the next day and not after a stewing in a cramped airline seat for five-hours.

Start at the bottom and move on up in management hierarchy if necessary. If it’s an airline complaint, start with the gate agent, who may be empowered to fix a problem before it escalates. If it’s a hotel, begin with the desk clerk. Try and get satisfaction at these levels before seeking a supervisor or manager. An increasing number of employees on the front lines in the travel industry are trained to deal with a variety of customer service problems. If a ticket was purchased or a reservation made through a web travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity, one of their customer service personnel can sometimes correct a problem.

Tell the person in charge what it would take to resolve the issue. And do ask for something specific, whether it’s an upgrade, a discount, or even a refund. But be reasonable and don’t ask for the moon. And don’t scream, don’t shout and don’t make threats. To take a lesson from kindergarten, being nice really goes a long way.

Playing the status card can sometimes help. Members of frequent flier programs, a car rental preferred member club or a hotel loyalty program should mention their membership. If an airline, car rental company or hotel has a loyal customer with a complaint, chances are that they’ll attend to them first.

If the situation looks like it warrants complaining in writing, do some fact-gathering and take good notes. In an airline situation, there might well be other people in the same straits. Try and exchange names or business cards with them. And be sure to get the names of employees involved.

In a letter, state the facts as they happened and remember to ask for something specific, whether it’s an apology, a refund or a voucher. In fact, in order to avoid getting a form letter in reply, it’s critical to ask for something specific in return. If there’s a legitimate case for compensation, determine a realistic amount to ask for. Remember to enclose any relevant copies of paperwork, whether it’s a bill, a receipt, a boarding pass or a ticket stub. Send the complaint to customer relations at the offending company first. If they don’t resolve the matter in a satisfactory fashion, write a second letter, this time copying key people, such as the company’s chief executive officer.

Other noteworthy recipients might include a travel agent or the previously mentioned DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

And if a hotel, airline or car rental company won’t cooperate?

Well, consumers come to the table with considerable clout in the form of their credit card, a sure-fire way to withhold payment pending an investigation.

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