When You Should Complain to an Airline

03/11/2015 10:42 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015


I have a knack for spotting frequent complainer flyers. They're the ones on the security line or from across the gate ready to complain about anything and everything. I identify them and then stay far, far away from them and their air of angry.

Still, I think there are times when voicing a complaint tactfully and firmly is totally warranted. There might not be any flight rights passengers have left in a world of mega-merged airlines dictating how things will fly, but I say we definitely should exercise what we've got. And people do seem to be raising their voices more these days: Filed passenger complaints were up 17.6 percent in 2014 for U.S. airlines, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data from the The Chicago Tribune.

I suspect many flyers still take a lot lying down (or sitting in cramped seats, har har) from airlines that they don't have to. And sometimes I do run across something and wonder if a complaint is justified. Here are some flight travel situations in which kvetching might be well-justified -- and might deserve compensation.

Bumped from a flight or it gets canceled.

The U.S. is far, far behind the E.U. when it comes to passenger rights, but even getting bumped from a flight or having a flight canceled without warning is just not okay and is grounds for getting financial compensation. Considering bumps happened more frequently last year according to the U.S. Department of Transportation data, I file this under important.

(That info did actually reveal some positive change, I should say: The rate of canceled U.S. domestic flights was less than half of what it was in 2013.)

Airlines often try to soften the blow with offers of upgrades, miles and ploys like vouchers to Cinnabon. Don't fall for it! That's not the only option. The reality is that passengers are entitled to actual money back, in addition to a timely rescheduled flight, when they get screwed over in this fashion.

If you're in Europe, any flight -- no matter the airline operator -- that is to or from the E.U. falls under E.U. legal jurisdiction for passenger rights. For unsavory situations like delays, this could meaning potential payments.

The in-flight entertainment system or power ports don't work.

That's just not fun and most flight attendants will do what they can to get the problem fixed. Sometimes it's pretty much pointless when something's broken on the aircraft, though. That said, imagine no in-flight entertainment for a 13-hour long-haul flight; that's no fun! Or ponying up for in-flight Wi-Fi only to find out the power ports don't work mid-flight. (The Internet is pretty useless if there's no way to recharge a phone, tablet or computer.)

Now, this won't involve a potential thousand-dollar comp like being bumped from a flight would but hopefully something good will come of it. Sometimes, airlines won't mind throwing in a goodwill gesture such as a $100 voucher torward your next flight.

Missing the whole point of a trip.

I'll admit: I only learned about the trip-in-vain rule recently. I honestly don't understand how it's kept so hush-hush because it's a huge deal.

Essentially this is the situation: If flight delays or cancellations make me miss the whole reason for my trip, like a wedding or meeting, then I'm likely entitled to financial compensation or have the airline re-accommodate me. It's probably one of the most least-understood policies out there, but there have been people who have made it work for them. The key seems to be the fact that, knowledge is power, in this case.

When your luggage is lost.

It's not just the extreme situation of items being stolen from a bag (which definitely deserves complaints, by the way) in which the airline needs to pay up. If I get to my destination and my luggage is nowhere to be found, the U.S. Department of Transportation states I'm entitled to money.

The governmental agency forces airlines to cover the cost of loss or damage to passenger bags and their contents up to $3,400 (the original limit was adjusted for inflation in 2013). The Points Guy states that this covers the depreciated value, not the replacement value, and excludes "valuables, such as jewelry, electronics, and financial instruments." He also notes that if the claim is filed at an international destination, the limitation is about half that.

Yeah you don't want to lose this. (friend JAD/ Flickr) Yeah you don't want to lose this. (friend JAD/ Flickr)

As for delayed luggage?

When it comes to baggage that is merely delayed and not lost, each airline makes up its own rules. The most important rule to remember is that most airlines require passengers to file a claim immediately at the final destination and it's wise to get a copy of your claim in writing before leaving the airport... The last carrier you flew to your destination is always responsible for your lost or delayed luggage. Finally, airlines are required to reimburse passengers for fees paid only on lost luggage, although I've had success getting fees reimbursed when my bags were merely delayed.

When you've got status or flying business.

Hold up: just because you've got status or flying business doesn't give anyone the right to complain. But it does, and should, entitle someone to slightly more humane service.

This might seem bratty at first blush, but it comes down to the fact that airlines have moved toward fee-based models. The more paid, the more received, is it goes. Ergo, the more miles logged, dollars paid and status earned with an airline, the less cattle-like it should all be when it comes to everything related to service or someone's interactions with the airline.

In theory (I said theory!), these loyalty programs want to keep their frequent flyers happy. It's in everyone's best interest that happens. If something is off like a requested meal isn't loaded into business like mentioned in this FlyerTalk forum, well, that should be made known.

This post originally appeared on Map Happy.

Karina Martinez-Carter is an assistant editor at Map Happy. She has written for BBC Travel, BBC Capital, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist and more.

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