The concept of “consumer rights” has not yet reached the airline industry.
Under Federal law, as enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration, airline passengers have only the following guaranteed rights:
If your flight is delayed (such as by bad weather) and you’re stuck on the tarnac:
- Tarnac delays cannot exceed three hours. You can leave the plane if you choose after that.
- Food and water must be available after the plane has been stuck on the tarnac for two hours.
- The airline must service toilets, keep air conditioning on, and keep trash cans clean.
In addition, the U.S. government mandates these “rights” for air travelers:
- Compensation when you’re bumped due to overbooking –and for no other reason.
- An airline must accept lost/damaged baggage liability up to $3,000 in depreciated value per passenger for a domestic flight (limits on international flights are either about $1,700 or $635, depending on which rule applies).
Beyond those, all you can claim is what’s in each airline’s “contract of carriage.” Those contracts are–naturally–heavily biased toward airlines, not customers.
Given that the law–and the Congressmen who create it–is still largely owned by the airlines, you, as a customer, are forced to make do with the weapons at hand.
These essentially boil down to two:
- Threatening the airlines with bad publicity; and
- Threatening the airlines with a private or class-action lawsuit.
In both cases, it’s best to first contact the highest-ranking officials in the airline company.
There are two reasons for this:
- They have the most to lose, and
- They have the power to redress your complaint.
You can try to reach the CEO or one of his assistants during the time of the incident. But, most likely, this will happen afterwards.
If a mini-Hitler of an airline steward decides to eject you because s/he doesn’t like your clothes or request for help, there’s nothing you can do about it.
If you physically resist, you will almost certainly be arrested and charged with some version of domestic terrorism. You’ll be shipped off to jail and forced to defend yourself against the bogus charge.
Even if the authorities decide to not prosecute, you’ll have to spend at least several hundred dollars on legal representation.
And, of course, the airlines won’t care. They won’t be spending a dime on your prosecution–that will be paid for by the local U.S. Attorney’s (federal prosecutor’s) office.
Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of political science, wisely advised in The Prince:
“A prince…must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.
“One must therefore be a fox to avoid traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”
This is definitely the time to take on the trappings of a fox. However painful it is to swallow the insult at the time it’s given, don’t give the airlines an excuse to have you arrested.
Take your revenge afterward. That’s what musician Dave Carroll did.
Carroll alleged that, in 2008, he and fellow passengers saw United Airlines’ baggage-handling crew throwing guitars on the tarmac in Chicago O’Hare.
He arrived at Omaha, Nebraska, his destination to discover that the neck of his $3,500 Taylor guitar had been broken.
Carroll complained to three United employees, but they proved indifferent. He filed a claim with the airline–but was told he was ineligible for compensation.
The reason? He had not filed the claim within the company’s stipulated “standard 24-hour timeframe.”
Carroll turned to his musical roots for a remedy. He wrote a song, “United Breaks Guitars,” and turned it into a music video which he posted on YouTube and iTunes in July, 2009.
The song went viral, and became a public relations nightmare for the airline.
The Sunday Times reported that, four days after the video’s posting, United Airlines’ stock price fell 10% costing stockholders about $180 million in value.
Most customers, admittedly, aren’t musicians. For them–short of suing–the weapons of choice will be:
- The phone
- The Internet
- Consumer protection organizations that can be enlisted
Let’s start with the first: The phone.
Most customers assume the place to take their anger is the airline Customer Service desk. And the airlines encourage people to do just that.
Don’t do it.
Customer Service is staffed by people who may ooze compassion but who aren’t authorized to do anything on your behalf.
And of course they’ll be well-versed in the standard airline excuses for why your request is denied.
(Think of Dave Carroll and the excuse United’s reps offered him: You didn’t file your claim within 24 hours.)
Even if they truly want to help you, they’ll find themselves outranked at every level.
So take your complaint to someone who has the authority to resolve it. This means, preferably, the CEO of the airline, or at least one of his executive colleagues.