Slade Column: If an Airline Does You Wrong, It Pays to Complain
November 5, 2017
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  • Due to travel plans, the last weekends in October marked the first consecutive weeks when my 7-year-old financial tips column didn’t appear, but I wasn’t just on vacation.

    I was also conducting some unplanned fact-finding about why it’s important to complain if an airline has done you wrong.

    My wife and I spent 10 days in Spain, a rare and enjoyable overseas trip for us. We did not run into any trouble related to the Spanish conflict over Catalonian independence, as some friends had feared. Instead, all of the issues we encountered involved air travel to and from the U.S.

    When all was said and done, American Airlines sent my wife and I $400 in travel vouchers and 15,000 frequent flier miles to make up for problems we experienced. Mine is an example of why people shouldn’t remain silent, when they believe an airline hasn’t provided what they paid for.

    Airline travel just isn’t like it used to be, as regular travelers have surely noticed. Planes are packed and often overbooked, the least expensive seats are smaller than ever, the add-on fees for things like luggage and seat selection keep multiplying, and lines at airport are often long.

    We expected all that, but we didn’t expect to sit on a plane, at a departure gate in Philadelphia, for nearly two hours because our flight to Spain didn’t have a full flight crew. So we ended up missing a connection in Spain to a different airline, had to forfeit money paid for the missed flight and the hotel we would have stayed in, and had to spend lots more on another hotel and new plane tickets.

    When faced with a problem like that — a situation where an airline has cost you time and money, but isn’t necessarily required to compensate you — an email to the airline may be all it takes to get some sort of compensation.

    The $200 vouchers for future travel that American Airlines sent to each of us don’t make up for a missed vacation day in Spain, or approach the amount we spent out-of-pocket due to the carrier’s failure to staff the plane we paid to fly on. But it’s $400 we wouldn’t have if we remained silent.

    Airlines are used to this sort of thing. It’s a cost of doing business for this unusual industry, where buying a nonrefundable ticket to fly from Point A to Point B at a particular time doesn’t actually mean you’ll leave or arrive as scheduled, or even necessarily have a seat.

    For our return flights I had bought tickets from Barcelona to Philadelphia, and used frequent flier miles for tickets from Philadelphia to Charleston, both on American. I allowed more than four hours to make that connection in Philadelphia.

    But the airline changed the time of the second flight, narrowing my connection time to two hours. Normally, that’s a safe amount of time for a connection, but we had to get through U.S. Customs in Philadelphia, where just three agents were on duty to process hundreds of passengers arriving on multiple flights.

    So again we missed a connection, despite booking tickets that should have allowed plenty of time. The airline was able to put us on a different flight, we arrived in Charleston 17 hours after leaving Barcelona. Another complaint resulted in the airline throwing us each 7,500 frequent flier miles.

    On American, 7,500 miles is enough for a free one-way flight of 500 miles or less, such as Charleston to Washington D.C., or Charlotte to Philadelphia, so those miles are potentially worth several hundred dollars.

    If I had a choice, I’d rather have arrived on time to my destinations and avoided the stress of making alternate plans mid-trip. But if you encounter problems with an airline, remember my experience and don’t hesitate to speak up.