How to Complain at the Airport (and Actually Get What You Want)

Christine Sarkis, December 03, 2014
Fares from Washington DC:

    Airports are hubs for more than just flights. Complaints fly nearly constantly across check-in desks, customer-service counters, and gates at every airport in every city in the world. And, sure, with delayed flights and bad seats galore, there's plenty for passengers to rightfully complain about.

    But with so many gripes, the best way to be heard when you have a problem is to rise above the din. Here are our tips for complaining the right way next time something goes wrong for you at the airport.

    Center Yourself: Anger is likely fueling your complaint, but all that rage and indignation will work against you when it comes to negotiating a satisfactory outcome. Before you lodge your complaint, take a minute to breathe deeply and re-center. Once you feel calmer, you'll be able to order your thoughts, complain strategically, and recognize a reasonable outcome when it comes your way.

    Don't Be a Jerk: Don't put your listener on the defensive with abusive language, eye rolling, fist pounding, or, that old classic, the nostrils-flared, jaw-clenched combo. Instead, before you start your complaint, take a moment to say hello and make eye contact.

    Know What You Want: Effective complaining requires you to know what you want. Don't leave it up to the gate agent to read your mind and know what you would consider a reasonable resolution. Before you start, decide what you hope to get out of the complaint—for instance, food or hotel vouchers, a reimbursement, or airfare credit.

    Be Reasonable: Know what you want, but be reasonable about it. A delayed flight doesn't warrant an upgrade to first class. And remember that the person you're talking to can't make a flight board faster or a plane come sooner. Make your requests reasonable and you'll have a much higher chance of seeing your needs met.

    Choose Your Wording: Saying "I demand" or "I insist" is a bad way to present your reasonable request. It cuts off any negotiation and puts the person you're talking to on the defensive from the get-go. Instead, try something less instantly confrontational, such as, "Here's what I think seems reasonable," or "This is what I would like."

    Make a Complaint Sandwich: Win over your listener with this classic strategy by starting with an "ear opener": something that plays on the sympathies of the person you're talking to. Then state your request and follow it up with a phrase or sentence that will motivate the listener to help you. For example, if you get to the airport and realize the aisle seat you paid extra for has, on your boarding pass, turned into a dreaded middle seat, you might say something like, "I've been flying with your airline for years, and I have generally been very happy with the service. The aisle seat I reserved has been changed to a middle seat, and I'd like to get it switched back. I really want to continue being a happy and loyal customer, so I would appreciate if you could help me get an aisle seat."

    Ask a Question: If you're at an impasse, ask the airline employee what they would do in your situation. Another way to help them see you as a reasonable person is by asking them how they think the problem can best be solved.

    Be Patient and Persistent: If your request is reasonable and feasible but you're not getting the outcome you'd like, ask politely to have the matter escalated to a superior. Or, head to a different counter and ask another person. Or call the airline's customer-service line.

    Use Social Media … Wisely: Many people have good luck catching the attention of an airline via a tweet using the carrier's Twitter handle. If you take this route, play to your audience. A gripe won't get you as far as a succinct and heartfelt narrative that allows the airline to publicly help a customer. So instead of saying, "@Airline is the worst! Going to miss another connection," try "@Airline, delayed flight=miss birth of niece. Help w/ another flight ASAP?"

    Don't Complain If You're in the Wrong: Instead, acknowledge your fault ("I was late, I missed my plane!") and then focus on winning the agent over to your cause. In cases where you're in the wrong, the best you can do is help them see you as a person in need, rather than an angry customer.

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    This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title How to Complain at the Airport (and Actually Get What You Want). Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

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