How to complain to an airline in 9 steps

It’s no secret that airline products and services vary greatly within any particular airline, and even more so across the industry as a whole. For those who fly often, or those who simply have become ‘airline connoisseurs’, failures on the airline’s part are very noticeable and can lead to an overall terrible experience.

Air travel isn’t necessarily cheap, and when you’re paying large sums of money and devoting a great deal of loyalty to an airline, you expect them to deliver well. So what happens when things just don’t go right? In my opinion, you have to tell someone about it. Especially when it comes to the high end carriers like Singapore Airlines, Etihad or Cathay Pacific, where passenger feedback drives and maintains the sky-high standards. So if you let issues slip past all the time, they’ll become more persistent, and your favourite airline may soon slip behind.

There’s almost an art to writing a complaint letter, so follow these general guidelines next time something comes up…

1. Don’t be afraid to complain!

Airline’s improve and develop as a result of constant feedback from passengers. Flaws are only fixed when they are properly told. If something’s not as you expected, go ahead and let the company know. They are not going to ‘think bad of you’ or get annoyed in any way. Feedback avenues are there for a reason, and airlines want to hear what is wrong with them. So, don’t be scared to point out the wrongs, just make sure you do it properly and politely!

2. Is it worth complaining?

This is the single most important decision. Should you really say something if the flight attendant on a budget airline’s flight doesn’t look you in the eye, or seem super friendly? Is it really an issue if your meal is a tad cooler than expected? On the other hand, a stewardess forgetting a drink or being unfriendly in Singapore Airlines Business Class is a whole separate issue. One of the biggest things that determines this is the airline and class you fly. Let’s be honest. You’re not going to expect much in economy on a budget airline. But if you’re flying First Class on Singapore Airlines, issues that wouldn’t otherwise be a problem become far more of a problem. Really think about this, because you don’t want to be that old hag who is complaining about nothing at all, just because there’s nothing better to do. A complaint is necessary when generally accepted standards aren’t upheld, and you feel like you haven’t received what you paid for.

3. Be coherent and logical.

Write in such a way that your message is clear, and the staff don’t have to read it over and over to understand what you are saying. If several issues occurred, work through the issues as they occurred in time. Don’t repeat statements unnecessarily, apart from enforcing a point. In this case, the hardline message of your complaint may be mentioned once, and then again as you conclude the letter to enforce that that is the prime issue for you. Remember to commence with a brief introduction and state that you are ‘complaining’ about a specific flight on a specific day, and then proceed to tell a clear story of what happened. Always conclude by reinforcing your most important thought, and sign off in a kind manner.

“The issues began with the first meal service…by the end of the flight the crew had lost their politeness and high standards…”

4. Know your facts.

If you’re going to complain, you need to be able to properly recount the events, and what went wrong. What you say needs to be truthful, without exaggeration. Making up things or being too vague will be far less effective than addressing the issue purely and simply as it is. It’s also helpful to provide other details about where you were situated in the cabin, your flight, flight number, date and even booking reference. Including such details help the staff identify you better, so they can properly investigate/ understand the issue. Whilst it may not be common knowledge to most, understanding the airline’s procedures and standards is even more powerful. If you are aware that a specific airline standard/ safety regulation has been breached, speak explicitly about it so that the staff know you mean business. Quite simply:

“I would like to comment on the service experienced onboard flight EY 454 departing 24th November from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. I was travelling in Economy and originally seated in 32K.”

5. Be formal, yet firm.

A powerful letter will shine when your language is coherent, developed, formal and polished. This presents you as a respectable person, and makes the staff more inclined to appropriately take care of the issue at hand. Sloppy grammar, verbal abuse, aggression or other things of the sort will not help your case, as the staff will simply lose respect. A clearly worded, yet firm and directional letter is far more likely to generate a desired response. Take this, for example:

“The Suites are SIA’s absolute peak, and should deliver a near-perfect service with few flaws. When passengers pay such a high premium to travel in such a cabin, I’m sure you understand that the expectations are very, very high, and hence repeated slip-ups, like what I have described to you, are very disappointing.”

6. Don’t be afraid to fill pages.

Ok, this depends very much on the issues that have occurred. If they are few and minor, a short and simple letter will more than suffice. However, when several things have gone wrong, or if a safety regulation has been breached, don’t feel scared to write on and on. For these big issues, be passionate and detailed and show the airline that you are very unhappy with the failure on their part. On a Garuda Indonesia flight, I noticed several minor safety breaches, which prompted me to write a very long letter:

“I fly very often and am very familiar with the standards and procedures relating to safety. I unfortunately found that on GA 715 some regulations were not upheld…the cabin crew failed to notice and rectify these safety issues.

7. Don’t request compensation unless absolutely necessary.

Most of the time, complain issues are relatively minor, to the point that they act as feedback for the airline, rather than a starting point for a law suit. When the issues were very serious, and resulted in extensive difficulties on your end it is certainly fair to be slightly more firm, and politely but strongly request some sort of compensation. This is a rare circumstance, as things like delays or aircraft incidents will automatically qualify for compensation under international aviation law. When issues are related to service/ cabin product, airlines will often compensate you in the way of frequent flyer miles if you are one of their elites. Asking for compensation for smaller issues will simply make you seem desperate, and there’s really no need for the extra anger. Major issues where compensation has not been delivered are the only ones deserving of such a request.

 “I strongly suggest you fix these issues and would very much appreciate some sort of compensation”

8. NEVER mention crew/ staff names.

This is something that many will disagree with me on. Flight attendants and most frontline staff in aviation have brutal jobs. They’re constantly berated by passengers, deal with unbelievable hours and work in an environment that most people struggle to just sit in for several hours. To top it off, pay is not necessarily the greatest, especially given the fact that crew are away from home, friends and family for a significant part of their careers. Despite this, most of them really do love their jobs. When it comes to airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, and other large, 5-star airlines, crew managers and executives do not tolerate poor crew performance. As such, minor infringements by crew can often result in severe disciplinary actions, including suspension or termination of contract. Now, whilst it is imperative to provide general feedback on what may have happened on an aircraft, I would never negatively mention a flight attendant’s name, as it is simply attracting unnecessary trouble for that individual. Once a complaint is filed with their name, it will be attached to their records and influence their lives more than you may imagine. So feel free to say that “the crew” forgot to serve a drink or “the stewardess” was unfriendly, but do not mention their names.

9. Write a compliment!

When it comes to complaining about service, it is often effective to start the letter with a compliment about anything to do with your trip. Be it the food, crew, seats, lounge, cabin, whatever, start by speaking about something that impressed you, or something that you know the airline is doing right. Of course, none of that may exist with some airlines.

Aside from writing complaint letters, take time to write a compliment letter when you’ve been really impressed. A passenger is far more likely to complain about something than to make an effort to compliment the airline. Compliments are really great, and are the only case where you should mention crew names. If you were happy with the performance of a cabin crew/ staff member, write about your positive experience and use their name, so that they can actually receive something back. Depending on the airline, a passenger compliment to an individual staff member may result in a letter of commendation, and award or assist with a promotion. A little tip of the hat can go a really long way.

“I would like to extend my warmest thanks and compliments to the Business Class crew operating SQ232…”

“the service was outstanding, and unlike most other flights.”

“The extra efforts she and the other crew went to were incredible.”

“Throughout the journey they went the extra mile to make us happy, were intrigued and happy to talk in the galley and provided absolutely phenomenal customer service.”

“I do hope that my commendations of Nazri (LS), Fi (LSS) and the other FS and FSS operating the rear Business cabin on SQ308. “

Writing complaint letters are a touchy issue. Some people may feel that taking the time to tell people where they went wrong is simply reminiscent of a spoilt and selfish person with nothing better to do. This could not be more false. Airlines are incredibly complex and mammoth beings. They drive the global economy, and are a vital tool to our world. Since they commenced, airlines have been all about providing incredible service, and a memorable experience. Yes, the ‘romance of air travel’ is dying, and that close and intimate experience may not longer be present. But why should it disappear? It most certainly can stay alive, and many airlines try their hardest to do so. Pointing out the flaws in a system is the only way to fix those flaws. When done correctly, your messages can make a positive difference. So next time you have a less-than-average encounter in air-travel, don’t be afraid to take a little bit of time to tell the company what went wrong. It’ll only help things to get better.


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