How to complain to an airline - and get results

By John Walton, July 18 2013
How to complain to an airline - and get results

Every airline makes mistakes — admittedly some more than others — and every traveller has been caught out by delays, lost luggage, faulty seats, a borked inflight entertainment systems or other items on the long list of Things That Can Go Wrong.

And when things do go wrong with an airline, it's often difficult to get your problems resolved then and there.

Frontline staffers and cabin crew often lack the authority to sign off on fixing your problem -- or they're just completely swamped with hundreds of other customers in a similar boat to you.

So you're left to complain to the airline.

But how do you maximise your chances of getting what you need? Here's some hard-won advice on how to complain — and get results.

1. When something goes wrong

First off, document whatever's happened. Seat not working or dirty? Outfit stained by a flight crew accident? Luggage problem? Downgraded to economy?

Use your smartphone to snap pictures or even a short video if you can, including the problem and ideally some kind of marker for the date and time. (A clock on the wall? Your watch? A newspaper? Your laptop clock?)

Note down who you first speak to about the problem, what was said, and what the airline said you should do next — and when.

2. Start with the end in mind

Figure out what you want: an apology? Monetary compensation or even a full refund? A credit voucher? Frequent flyer points? Compensation for a hotel stay or emergency necessities? Replacement for a bag or possession that the airline ruined? Something else?

But be realistic: ask around to see what you can reasonably expect the airline to do about it. (Try the Australian Business Traveller Questions and Answers section, where fellow travellers are always around to help you out.)

3. Keep track of things in one place

It's important to keep track of your dealings with the airline, both for follow-up reasons ("I've spoken to five people since October 4th, and here are their names and what they said") and to save yourself time finding the details for a second call.

So keep track of things in a Word document, a file in Evernote or old fashioned paper.

4. Use the phone

Start off with a phone call, which is the best use of your time: often, problems can be resolved with a call rather than needing to sit down and crank out a stiffly-worded email or letter.

As much as we'd often prefer to start off with an email, most airlines don't do email well, there's almost always an initial barrage of questions, and their online enquiry forms have a frustrating habit of going astray.

Even if you do need to write in, a quick call can ensure you get to the right place and that the initial circumstances of your problem have been logged.

As for Twitter, most times we just wouldn't bother. The standard Twitter response from too many airlines is usually "call our contact centre". An exception might be if you're overseas and don't want to make a long-distance phone call, and are trying to get the airline to ring you.

5. Make notes before you dial

Before you dial, make a few quick notes to steer your end of the conversation.

  • The number you're calling (for next time, or if you get disconnected)
  • The date and time you're calling
  • The case number, if you have one (from a baggage problem, say)
  • Your flight particulars
  • Your frequent flyer number
  • Any insurance details you have
  • A few bullet points of what's happened and what you want: this helps you to articulate your discussion with the agent on the phone

Above all else, remember to keep your cool. Don't just vent your frustration on the poor sod who'll answer your call. You won't get what you want if you're still angry about things.

6. Start writing when the phone starts ringing

While you're navigating the airline's interactive call menu, jot down:

  • The time when you started the call
  • How you reach a real live person (press 4, then 6, then 8, for example)
  • Who you talked to and in which department

7. Don't hang up without a "next action"

So you've made it through to a real live human and said your piece. Before hanging up, seek agreement with the airline's agent on what happens next. Note down:

  • What the next step is (for someone to call you back, or for you to put your concerns in writing)
  • When you should follow up if you haven't heard back
  • How you'll follow up: direct line? A person-specific address?
  • The time when you ended the call

8. Be sure to follow up

It's all too easy for things to get lost — and it's in the airline's interests if they don't get back to you with that promised update or a resolution.

So if you're told this is a "check back in two weeks" situation, make a note in your calendar to remind you to follow up. Be persistent and polite and you'll win out in the end.

What's happened when you've complained to an airline? Been fobbed off or did you get satisfaction? Share your experiences below and contribute to AusBT readers' pool of knowledge!

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

09 May 2011

Total posts 294

As a high-status Velocity member I've good success complaining to Virgin's e-mail addresses. The trick is to not use their contact form, but instead to send an e-mail to one of their e-mail addresses – e.g. [email protected]

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

What's the response time to those? And do you normally get an email back or a phone call? I've had some really spotty experiences with them (some of which you know about, Chris!)...

09 May 2011

Total posts 294

I've had initial "we will send you an update in 14 days" e-mails reasonably quickly. Sometimes I've had phone calls back.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

01 Mar 2012

Total posts 177

Great tip, thanks for that!


04 Nov 2010

Total posts 670

On a Qantas flight to Shanghai a few years ago the video screen in my seat wasn't working, I wasn't too fussed because I had a new book that I was dying to read. Alright I confess it was the latest Harry Potter book! But enjoyable and thick enough to last the whole flight. I wasn't going to bother complaining but the FA was very apologetic and maybe because I wasn't kicking up a fuss she said that I should still write to Qantas because they will give me frequent flyer points for the inconveniece, she said they have a stack of points set aside to keep customers happy. So I did, and I got 10,000 points. Not a lot but better than nothing!

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

10,000 points to Gryffindor…

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2550

Interesting to read Al's experience. I've recently been on two flights where the IFE went belly-up – one Qantas, the other Cathay Pacific.

On the QF flight the problem was limited to my seat, and with a full cabin there was nowhere else I could be moved to. The 'compensation' for this was a $50 credit voucher which I used to buy a universal AC adaptor through QF inflight duty-free.

The CX flight was a plane-wide crash of the IFE. Every passenger in business class got a $100 CX duty-free voucher, and in economy everybody got a $50 voucher.

I think both of those rate on the poor side of the equation. $50 or even $100 for a non-working IFE, especially if you were intending to settle back and watch a movie to while away your time - and as a result didn't have a book, and might not have an iPad or laptop loaded up with videos.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

I've a couple of recent data points to share:

1) I redeemed some Virgin Atlantic miles for an Air New Zealand flight in business from Tokyo to Auckland on the 777, with fully flat seats and direct aisle access. Air NZ swapped the 777 for a 767 with recliners (which was a major downgrade for a 12-hour flight) out but told neither Virgin nor me. I raised it with Virgin, including a picture of the seat (which is similar to Virgin's premium economy). I asked for a mileage refund of the difference between premium economy and business class (i.e., 10,000 miles) for that leg, which seemed reasonable. Virgin initially offered 4,000 miles but I replied and highlighted the difference between the seats to them, and they fronted up the full amount.

2) I booked business class with Air NZ from London to Auckland, but the power point wasn't working and it was a full cabin. I wrote in and they offered 120 Airpoints (redeemable at a Airpoint:1NZD), and I've only managed to spend about half of those on domestic NZ flights so far. A duty free voucher or something in a currency I could actually usefully use would have been more welcome.

Qantas - Platinum One

18 Jan 2011

Total posts 82

I flew Qantas first class a couple of years back, and the flight was downgraded from an A380 to an old 747. I wrote and was given a call back and a $300 voucher, which I was pretty disappointed with.

In hindsight, I wish I'd pushed the point and asked for more!

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Interesting — I'm actually researching a piece right now on what travellers can expect when you get a plane change (equipment swap, if you're an airline).

I'm keen to know what you (and passing readers) think an airline's responsibility is to their passengers when the downgrade affects the seat/flight quality but isn't a "business is full, you'll have to fly economy" situation. 

09 May 2011

Total posts 294

And a data point from me: I recenlty flew Virgin from LAX to SYD, where I was to connect to a morning flight for a mid-afternoon meeting in Melbourne. I booked a separate domestic flight to get me from Melbourne to Hobart in the evening.

My flight to SYD ended up getting diverted to BNE due to fog; we spent 3 hours on the tarmac at BNE, and the effort in getting us all on new flights failed massively. I missed my meeting in Melbourne (arriving in the CBD ~4 hours behind schedule).

My compensation ended up being a 100% refund of the domestic connecting legs, which was a more than adequate response in my book.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

01 Mar 2012

Total posts 177

Like in most things, if you are calm and cordial with the staff you are complaining to, they respond in a way that amazes you. I see people abusing them with personal insults and trying to blame the airline for everything that is going wrong in the world. It is no wonder that they are treated according to their std procedures. 

wilsoni Banned
wilsoni Banned

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Sep 2011

Total posts 321

All this is great advice for those who might like to follow it.  My own process, based on "don't get mad, get even" is:

1. Always put your complaint in writing - then there can be no argument about what was said on a phone. 

2. Always send your written complaint by fax. Email often gets ignored (especially at Qantas in my experience), whereas a fax has always produced timely results.

3. If you don't get a favourable response, assuming your claim is reasonable, make it known in a folllow-up fax that you are going to take it further i.e. you'll use the various State "small claims" tribunals to refer the dispute for a formal hearing. You'll find there rarely is a need to actually fill out that paperwork, and even more rarely a need for a hearing. Lawyers aren't allowed in these places, so you you'll never be savaged by a bunch of QC's on $1000 an hour of airline dosh. Airlines hate the thought of staff having to go along and waste up to a whole day at the court house defending their (perhaps untenable?) position. It's amazing how accommodating they'll be to to avoid this.  Remember, the rules are your friend: any hearing happens at the nearest court to you the applicant; if that's e.g. in Perth and staff have to be sent from the airline office in Sydney or held back from working a flight to London to give evidence that's just too bad. Yes it can sometimes be done without the travel, by phone conferencing, but it's still going to blow their time if you won't back down. Time is money, and it pays to make clear that you have lots of the former even though they may have lots of the latter.

I once decided to upgrade from Econ to Biz on SQ which by right should let me earn points at EY rate. Somehow their infamous system took me as a normal Biz redemption rather than upgrade redemption. After making a claim somehow my KF membership records seem inaccessible. Their reply "Sorry sir, redemption booking doesnt earn any miles".

Like duh I say.

Luckily somehow for that trip I managed to keep all my travel documents including all the boarding passes and upgrade redemption notifications. I put it in a nice chronological order and emailed to them.

Voila less than 24 hours I got a email to notify it has been credited and a phone call to apologize. It pays to keep records. Otherwise say bye bye to SIN-LHR mileage accruals.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 526

I had an IFE that wasn't working for my seat only on a QF flight to HKG. The crew were great in trying to get it work but in the end it wasn't cooperating. The CSM gave me two bottles of First Class wine and I thought that was that (I wasn't too worried about it all to be honest) and I didn't bother contacting Qantas about it.

On my return flight a few days later I was upgraded to First Class. Now... it could have been a coincidence... but I think the CSM follow up and this was what they did for me. It was a very comfortable overnight flight home!

11 Mar 2012

Total posts 181

Almost a year ago I found a stone while chewing on one of those pastry snacks served on DJ (CBR-MEL). Got it out on a tissue and alerted the flight attendant to it (I also took a photo of it). She took it away and that was it.

I wrote to VA about this with all the flight details and the pic asking them what they are going to do about it. Two months went by before I got a reply saying someone is going to look into it (this was like an automated email). Then Sometime arond June I get an email from someone in VA (was from their email account) apologising for the delay and that he's been trying to call me to discuss things. I replied I was available etc and waited for weeks before getting another email saying he'd been busy and promised someone would look into it.

That was it since that email. Nothing from their side.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

29 Jan 2011

Total posts 11

Get a Twitter account and mention the incident to @VirginAustralia, (although I am surprised that there are no tweets from them since 13 January).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2011

Total posts 361

On a flight from SIN to MEl with SQ in J the IFE was not working and they offered a $100 voucher inflight with no prompting. It was a night flight so was not concerned.

Also flew LAX to JFK with UA in J and the flight attendant picked up that there was a big chip in the dinner bowl before I did and said it was not good enough and also offered a $100 voucher. I was quite impressed with that one.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Nov 2011

Total posts 186

Flight from ADL-SIN with QF last year was delayed by 1 day, recieved a $600 Qantas travel voucher.  Given that I payed $800 for the return flight I was very impressed! Just from reading anecdotal evidence on forums like this it seems that QF are some of the best at compensation.  

BA flight from SIN-LHR 3 yrs ago IFE not working in my row, plane full, ran out of meal choices by my row (>10 from back of cabin) and was given a 10 pound duty free voucher for LHR.....wasn't overly impressed.

13 Dec 2011

Total posts 30

Was on LAX-SYD flight, no status but my wife has QP.

We'd paid for exit row seats in Row 79 of the A380.

No IFE in the entire rear section of the plane.

We sat quietly while most of the other passengers called the crew every name under the some. Others all of a sudden became DYKWIA's and there was a lot of groaning going on the cabin. The crew told us that the problem would be addressed after the meal service.

The second I finished my meal one of the crew came to us and said, "you two are the only ones that have sat in your seats with a smile on your face, we really appreciate that and we'd like to offer you a seat upstairs"

W was full so we got the double upgrade to J.

We couldn't magically make the IFE work so there's no point getting worked up about it. Sometimes it pays to just smile and sut up!

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Yet another reason (apart from just being a decent human being) to not be a prat to the cabin crew.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

25 Aug 2012

Total posts 21

Love it!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Jan 2013

Total posts 240

I was recently on JetStar from Melbourne to Sydney return and on both flights there was a loud scrapping/scratching noise coming from below the cabin as we left the gate a taxi'ed into position at the end of the runway.

They didn't make any announcement and it was kinda unsettling. I've reported it to JetStar and will stay on them, but I'm not sure of what compensation I should ask for/expect?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Nov 2012

Total posts 2

Hi Jono,

On Airbus narrow body aircraft there is a perculiar noise that can be heard around the over-wing area, it sounds a little like a couple of dogs barking in the cargo hold. It is part of the priming system used just prior to engine start up, you'll generally hear this on push-back.

Could this have been the noise you heard? Because it happened on both flights, I am inclined to wonder if it was this typical Airbus 320 family sound. Either that or you were unfortunate enough to fly on the same aircraft twice that had some type of fault.

For your safety, and indeed the safety of any person reading this, please alert a member of the crew as soon as you can. There have been several instances over the years where passengers directing the crew's attention to a problem have helped prevent or resolve a serious event.

I hope this helps :)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Jan 2013

Total posts 2

Travelling Amsterdam, London, HK o/n, Perth in First, missed the CX connection at Hearthrow due to operational limitations due to high winds. BA put us into the (then) Concorde Lounge for six hours, then gave us 20minutes notice to get to the gate. Great flight to HK in BA First, but upon arrival in HK we were advised our bags were sill in London but would arrive the next day.  I had to push a bit, but eventually we were give GBP 100 each!  That paid for a limo to & from the hotel, plus a change of clothes. Very happy campers!

But why oh why is BA business class still so bad when they can do such a great job in First?


John Watsons coments on Hoe to  complain effectivly to an Arline, might work with a company that is interested in customer service. It wont work with Emirates.. For 2 months I have tried to book a multidestination on the web with Emirates. There is a problem with their web site. They have hung up on me when phoning ignored numerous emails or replied with a bizzare answer. As for posted  letters about this problem .2 letters on to Dubai no answer one to Sydney anwered 1 month latter from Melbourne. I recomend that if anybody is thinking of flying with this airline dont because if something goes wrong they refuse to fix it,

22 Jun 2012

Total posts 3

I find writing to the CEO of a particular airline to be an easy and fast method of getting issues resolved. Last issue i had with QF was resolved in less than a week. But it can be a hard to work out the actual postal address of the CEO.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Apr 2012

Total posts 14

The following is our story of being reunited with our luggage on day 21 of a 30 day trip to Europe. I had a KLM ticket to Paris but the flight was on Malaysia Airlines from Perth to KL. The flight into KL was late and missed our KLM flight but was put on a MAS flight direct to Paris.

On day 3 were advised by email that luggage was now available in Paris but we weren't. Email requested name, address and telephone number of our accommodation and we responded with details of our accommodation 5 days ahead which was in Spain. Monitored email for 36 hours, no response  and then didn't have any email access for 30 hours.  Accessed emails again to discover an email requesting the name of the nerarest Spainish airport.

We were dealing with an organisation that wouldn’t ring our accommodation to find out the name of the nearest airport , took 36 hours to respond to emails and also wouldn’t speak to you over the phone unless you made a serious effort to speak in French.  Eventually got luggage on day 21, one case was damaged and then got into trouble for checking in 2kgs overweight for flights back to Australia. There was a major airport less than 30kms from our accommodation.

Compensation consisted of disposable razor, toothbrush, small tube of toothpaste, small tube of shaving cream and a t-shirt.

We were advised by our travel agent Malaysian Airlines was going to pay compensation in 14 days but during the 14 days MAS announced a major loss.

No compensation arrived and I estimate the personal cost of recovering lost luggage, looking for clothes, finding internet, etc  was about 2 days.

There was an ex work colleague on the same flight to KL and also missed her KLM flight. Ran into her last weekend and found that her lugagge also went missing.

You have all the supporting document in world but if the airline - Malaysia Airlines does want to compensate, you cannot do anything about it .

03 Jan 2012

Total posts 96

On a work trip to Moscow with Emirates a few years ago, I was flown from Perth to Dubai but then refused entry to the Moscow flight at the gate when the person in charge said I didn't have the necessary entry visa (I did).  Once I'd got the Russian consulate in Canberra to confirm this and demanded compensation for all the huge expenses which followed in getting into Moscow via London, I was told by Emirates that I "voluntarily chose to not board the aircraft".  So basically, they completely lied about this stuff up to avoid paying out!  Conmen of the worst kind and now Qantas are in bed with them.  God help us all!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

15 Aug 2012

Total posts 171

I always find the best way to deal with issues when they come up, be it an airline, hotel whatever, is to take the following approach:

1/ Be calm and rational and explain in exact detail with evidence the issue

2/ Once you have explained the issue, do not ask for a particular sort of compensation, ask this specific way "What do you propose as a solution to this problem?"

Sometimes the solution provided has been better than what I was intending to ask for. Basically, let them come to you with the first 'opening position', if it's better than you were hoping, take it, if not say "I'm sorry, but I have been quite inconvenienced, your going to need to do better than that for me to be satisfied". Once again keep it open and let them come to you with a better solution.

This approach has worked well for me .

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 413

A few months ago I was in 1st on QF A380 HKG-SYD, there was no air-con working at my seat, it was stifling, only heat from the vents. I was finaly moved to only vacant seat in 1st. On arrival called QF executive customer service and was sent a comp (space available) upgrade voucher for any long haul flight.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

30 Nov 2012

Total posts 5

I had a pleasant experience with Air New Zealand recently. I was unable to make a flight Mel to AK as a result of an illness. We had booked a 'no cancellation' fare, using my Platinum Amex, so claimed the cost back from Amex. Amex insisted I had to first of all make a claim on ANZ. I wrote to ANZ Customer Services Manager and to my surprise they refunded 90% of my air fare without hesitation. I'm not a part of their FF program, the fare I bought was non refundable & I thought that was a wonderful gesture. I have only begun using them in the past 2 or so years after becoming dissatisfied with QF on  Trans Tasman flights but have been really impressed with every aspect of their service. Wished I could use them direct from Oz to Asia & Europe.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

12 Dec 2015

Total posts 1

Hi Emirates travellers..

whilst on a recent trip to the UK I had an encounter with a very rude Emirates staff member.. When my husband decided we ask to have the matter referred to a senior staff member, Emirates employed.. they simply shrugged their shoulders and reluctant to assist. It was suggested we put our concerns in writing and would receive a response.  

It became very frustrating along the journey both in Melbourne, on board the aircraft we observed a similar behaviour. Very careless people, whom didn't seem interested in the welfare of people. 

To make matters worse we waited quite a lengthy period to receive a response from Emirates. As expected they simply were uninterested in any feedback on their employees. 

This is not what I expected from Emirates, a company whom spends lots of money on advertising they go the extra mile for people. 

We remain discouraged from recommending Emirates and taking future flights with them.. 

As the saying goes "Buyer Beware"


11 Feb 2016

Total posts 2

11 Feb 2016

Total posts 2

I broke a tooth on a Qantas chicken wrap that contained bones on a international flight last October. Customer service have fought this issue with me for over 3 months despite a letter from my dentist saying the tooth needed to be crowned due to the impact and a crack forming. Now saying they will CONSIDER HELPING AFTER  the dental work is completed! I would hate to think of what would happen if a more serious personal injury took place inflignt. I believe Qantas have really neglected their responsibility to me.

25 Feb 2016

Total posts 1

My daughter booked online with Virgin for a domestic flight. Pop up page read that the online payment could not be processed at that time and to contract the Airline direct to book. Did that:   unknowingly paid again and then noticed the original payment had been deducted - in effect 2 payments were taken out of account due to Virgin system failure. Received flight reservation confirmation of original flight after deduction of additional payment. Several telephone calls and assurances the money would be returned and a discount issued no refund or discount voucher since 12 February 2016. Virgin also rudely reprimanded daughter for making follow up calls. 

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