Why airlines don’t take most complaints seriously…

Initially I was just going to make this a post purely for your entertainment, like Hyatt’s towel hoarding, water splashing, “how dare they enter my room” customer. Nothing entertains me quite as much as reading long complaints people have about their airline experiences. And trust me, I’m as pro-customer as they get, so when a complaint makes me cringe, it’s bad!

For whatever reason, people don’t grasp the concept that for complaints, less is more. If you don’t want to appear to the customer service representative like a whiner that’s pulling stuff out of thin air, stick only to the major issues. Don’t like the flight attendant’s lipstick? Don’t write the airline about it! Did your meal in coach not consist of “fresh, crisp romaine lettuce?” Don’t write the airline about it! Were security lines long? Don’t write the airline about it!

Which brings me to this post I read on FlyerTalk.

This FlyerTalk member flew from Barcelona to New York on American, and the flight was an “awful, awful mess.” Oh boy, I wonder what happened?

Well, the short story is nothing really.

His first complaint was this:

When I arrived at BCN airport, it was announced the flight was delayed 1.5 hours because of the late arrival of the plane the previous night and the mandatory down time for the crew.

Funny enough he admits this is no big deal, when I think that this is actually his most legitimate gripe (not that it’s a major issue, but the other issues are even more minor).

The second complaint:

Was shocked to see AA is flying an intercontinental aircraft without the little screens so I can watch what I want to watch not the one movie they decide to put on a big screen.

Oh no, an airline without those “little screens!” The fact is, the passenger should have known this. American has a page on their website dedicated to in-flight entertainment, so that’s the passenger’s fault.

And my favorite, the third complaint:

During the beverage service, I asked for a coke zero. No we don’t have coke zero but we’ll give you diet coke. Of course they didn’t give me diet coke, they gave me coke light. Now coke light is not the same drink, doesn’t taste anywhere near diet coke no matter what you might have heard or believe. As a matter of fact, why AA continues to serve diet coke or coke light is beyond me as sales of coke zero, especially in Europe, have shot way ahead of the silver cans. But then the intersting thing, after the meal servide i went to the back and asked for and got a diet coke. But when the snack came in an hour before landing at JFK, I asked for a diet coke and again got a coke light. Disgusting, at least to me (although many here will probably laugh).


And the fourth complaint:

Okay we land at JFK and get to immigration and no other flights are there. Quickly through passport contorl and then wait and wait and wait at the carousel. No announcements are made. Meanwhile people remember are 1.5 hours late already and many have connecting flights. Apparently there was some thunder and lightning but still an annoucement could have been made. And then to add insult to injury, two other flights come in one fro Santo Domingo and the other from Rome and guess what…..despite the fact our flight had arrived first, their baggage came down the carousel ahead of ours. What kind of nonsense is that.

Damn rampers, they should have been unloading bags in thunder and lightning!

I know the above is only a post on FlyerTalk, but many (most?) complaint letters to airlines are constructed in a similar fashion, pointing out every minor negative when writing to complain.

If the poster above were to send a complaint to American, he would be best off making it something like this:

“My flight from Barcelona to New York was 1.5 hours late. This greatly inconvenienced me, because I had an appointment shortly after landing and relied on American to get me there on time.”

Of course I’m not saying the poster should complain about that, but of his four complaints, that’s the only one that holds even an ounce or merit.

So to this FlyerTalk member, you get my complaint of the week award! Let’s toast (Diet Coke/Coke Lite/Coke Zero) to that!

Filed Under: Advice
  1. I’ve had some great experiences with AA recently, including a reservation agent helping me book a MR and telling me how to avoid the $25 fee.

  2. Am I the only one who finds the direct attack of someone’s post on FT taken apart in your blog offensive? You have a way of posting that is condescending to say the least. People have better things to do than minute research on their carriers and programs. That isn’t a fault, it’s a fact.

    Pointing them at sources so they could learn in future would be a much better use of their time and reflect better on you than the diatribe you’ve posted here. Very disappointing, to say the least.

  3. I actually find the variation in Coke taste across countries fascinating. (I am currently sipping on a Coca Cola light “sango”, which is vaguely orange-flavoured, and which I suspect to be aimed at the German market, which loves that kind of thing.)

    My favourite: Norway. Less sweet, more nutmeg.

    PS. My view on GA‘s comment: if you don’t want people saying you’ve said stupid things on the Internet, don’t say stupid things on the Internet.

  4. Ben, I completely agree with you. I cringe at most of the rants that cause people to “never fly this airline again!” – mostly, customers have terrible expectations, terrible preparation, and impossible expectations.

  5. I have to side with you on this one, Ben. I too am extremely pro consumer, but a person should be knowledgeable and have reasonable expectations. The complaint about IFE was particularly telling!

  6. Having had to answer passenger complaints at an airline in the past, some of the stuff people demand compensation for is ridiculous. My favourite one was when a passenger demanded compensation from us for NOT cancelling a flight. He had expected the flight to be cancelled due to bad weather and had rescheduled his business accordingly, so demanded compensation for the “lost productivity” caused by us operating on time.

  7. GA and his/her supporters shouldn’t read this blog if they don’t like what has to be said. I agree with Ben completely.

  8. @ GA — I certainly see where you’re coming from. My tone was intended to be entertaining, though reading it again I can see how it could be perceived as condescending (though that wasn’t the intent). I have a tendency to poke fun at people, including myself. I’ve called myself an idiot and douche a countless number of times on this blog, and get called it by others in good fun a dozen times a day as well.

    That being said, I have to disagree with your second point. You’re saying the guy had better things to do than take a minute to research whether his flight would have personal televisions or not, but he doesn’t have better things to do than post a ridiculous page-long complaint on FlyerTalk and follow up with a handful of posts?

    If the guy had been genuinely confused that’s one thing, and I would never post about that. It’s not like he says “they didn’t have TVs, though in retrospect I should have known that given that it’s on their website.” But instead he’s complaining about an “awful, awful mess” of a flight that sounds perfectly normal to me!

  9. I agree with most of Lucky’s comments, though do take exception with complaint #2. I’ve flown multiple international trips in the past few years on a combination of US and international carriers, and they all had on-demand IFE.

    I have the knowledge and experience to realize that amenities available on a certain flight could vary widely depending on the configuration of the plane used, but many people would not realize the difference and assume entertainment options would be standardized throughout a fleet.

    I’m guessing it has been some time since Lucky flew long-haul international in a cabin not equipped with on-demand IFE (and I vaguely remember him receiving UA compensation for not working IFE). I think personal IFE should really be baseline for any sort of long-haul travel, and if I showed up for a international flight and was forced to watch whatever terrible movie was playing I would be annoyed too.

    (As a side note, in my view its a bit hypocritical to knock someone for complaining about lack of IFE if one has received compensation for that issue in the past. Please disregard if this hasn’t happened.)

  10. @ kylemore — I totally agree it should be offered by most airlines. The thing is, I think we take a different approach to managing expectations. To me if an airline doesn’t advertise or publish a service, you can’t “justifiably” complain about it. That means that if I’m used to flying coach on European airlines which offer free booze, I can’t fly a US airline and say “what a miserable flight, they should have had booze.” Yes, one can be disappointed and one can take their business elsewhere, though that’s not something the airline should apologize for and offer compensation, in my opinion.

    If, on the other hand, my flight is advertised to have personal televisions (something which many airlines advertise heavily) and it doesn’t work, I by all means think compensation is due. Why? Because people often choose flights not just based on the price or schedule, but the services offered. If I had no reasonable right to expect the service I can’t be mad if it’s not offered, while I can be mad if it was promised but not offered.

    So I definitely see why the poster was mad about not having a TV, and I hope they learn from it next time by flying an airline that does offer a personal television, or flying an American plane that offers them. By voting with his wallet he’ll hopefully send American a message that they need to update their in-flight entertainment, since it’s in desperate need of an upgrade.

  11. I must be an anomaly in the airline world. I have written 2 complaint letters and in both of them explicitly stated I did not want compensation as I didn’t feel the issue was worth it in one case or going to be enough in the other. I did state in my angry letter to UA many years ago that I put them on probation for 3 years and would try them again at that time. It actually took me 4 years to get back to them, but c’est la vie.

    In contrast to those 2 complaint letters I have written probably a dozen letters commending a crew, employee, or flight experience. I’ve probably gotten more response from those than any other. Even to the point of getting several letters thanking me from multiple levels of the company.

    I guess I’m rather zen about a lot of things. It does make life easier in my opinion.

  12. Sent AA a concise note advising that on flight 265 LAX-LIH the last 10 bags to arrive all had bright orange”Priority” tags (2 were ours)and the weather in LIH was perfect.. This is supposed to be an “Elite”benefit.
    AA thanked me for bringing it to their attention. No apology and no compensation.

  13. It’s legitimate to complain about eg. a lack of personal IFE (or booze,or anything else) from the perspective of something that the product lacks. Not necessarily as an “official” complaint to the airline, and I absolutely agree that ridiculous hyperbole makes the complainer look foolish, but it’s still a reasonable talking point.

    People complain all day long that this or that product is outdated, or lacking in service, or has uncomfortable seats etc. In most such cases, the complaint (or whining) at least acknowledges reality, though.

  14. I guess lucky could have avoided linking to the person’s complaint but I think the big point was how to complain and how not to.

    I had an issue where the FA (US Airways Envoy from LGW) couldn’t find my coat. I was getting PO since she took it from me and hung it up (I was busy getting situated at my seat so I didn’t watch wear it was hung). Finally as passengers were leaving I complained to another FA and he walked right to the closet where she had looked and it was hanging in plain sight.

    I don’t know if she was drinking or what but it was frustrating. In the end I didn’t write in (not looking for compensation but just to point out a not so functional employee).

    I still find it baffling she didn’t see it since it was hanging in plain view.

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