In the United States, there are seven basic options for a consumer who wishes to pursue a dispute with an airline, travel agent, or tour operator:
Informal correspondence with airline customer relations staff. Easy, usually via web site submission. You'll typically get a response. (Indeed, US Department of Transportation rules require an airline to send a substantive written response within 60 days.) But there's no guarantee that the complaint will be handled by someone who truly understands, nor that the response will be helpful or correct. The airline may anticipate that many people complain but few follow up on an unfavorable response -- reducing their incentive to provide a full resolution or even conduct a complete investigation. Some customer relations staff may not have sufficient information or training to investigate unusual problems.
Credit card chargeback. This is most useful if there is a recent, easily-provable, and impeccably documented overcharge. In principle, the merchant (airline) is obliged to demonstrate your acceptance of the charge and their performance of the promised service -- and in principle the burden of proof is on their side. Furthermore, credit card disputes are adjudicated by card network staff who do not directly report to airline management, reducing some conflicts of interest. Credit card procedures are particularly useful to passengers in case of bankruptcy of an airline or travel agent, obliging the airline's bank to provide the refund even if the airline cannot, whereas other methods typically are typically unable to assist in that circumstance. Furthermore, a successful credit card chargeback yields a direct payment (refund) to the passenger, with no need to pursue a collection effort against a distant company. Nonetheless, I am told that most credit card disputes are resolved in favor of airlines, as their positions are supported by at least an appearance of reliable records. Moreover, credit card dispute processes make it difficult to challenge records as unreliable or incorrect, or to challenge airline policies as violating law or regulation. These shortfalls make credit card disputes a poor fit for complex matters or unusual allegations.
Litigation, most often in small claims court. Some judges are open to the suggestion that airlines screwed up, broke the law, or even failed to follow their own rules. Of course there's no guarantee that the judge will be an expert or will be able to take the time to understand the unusual situation you describe or the specialized rules and laws pertaining to aviation. Decisions are usually unpublished and informal, making it easy for passengers' arguments not to be considered in full.
Pursue special state claims. Some states offer "seller of travel" laws (which could apply based on your residence, the state where the ticket was purchased, or the state where the online travel agency is based). These occasionally provide some recourse or compensation, for example if a travel agency or tour operator goes out of business or absconds with your money.
Pursue any redress available under foreign law. Consider such options if the flight was international (potentially including domestic segments of an international itinerary) or the ticket was purchased from an airline office, travel agency, or tour operator outside the United States. Some countries offer greater protections than the United States. That said, most consumers would face significant difficulties pursuing claims in a jurisdiction where they do not reside.
Informal DOT complaint (via this web form). DOT routes your complaint to a higher caliber of representative from the airline, compared to #1, and sometimes these staff are better positioned to assess your claim, consider the merit in your position, and provide a meaningful resolution. In principle DOT reviews the resolution of each matter, and this oversight or potential oversight imposes causes airlines to be more careful in responding to consumers' informal DOT complaints. On the other hand, the proceeding is nonetheless secret and off-the-record. Your complaint will do nothing to help anyone else and typically won't cause a change that fixes the underlying problem. DOT staff are sometimes involved in mediating these disputes, but you can't count on this kind of assistance. Indeed, the Office of Inspector General found that the DOT's reviews of passenger complaints are insufficient to determine whether airlines engage in unfair and deceptive practices.
A formal DOT complaint via the process detailed below. These proceedings are formal and on the record. You'll be corresponding with an airline's designated representative, typically an attorney. All filings will be published on the web for anyone interested to read, and Airlineinfo and its Twitter feed make it particularly easy for the interested public to find and follow these disputes. DOT staff ultimately prepare a written decision summarizing each party's position and offering an assessment. These factors increase the likelihood of a full investigation and proper analysis. That said, airlines take the position that DOT lacks authority to order refunds to affected passengers. Furthermore, decisions are often slow, commonly taking a year or longer.
This page elaborates on the seventh option, formal DOT complaints, as this process is not widely understood and not widely used despite its important potential benefits as detailed above.
Filing a formal complaint with the DOT: instructions and what to expect
For those inclined to proceed with formal DOT complaints, here are my tips based on the several such complaints I have filed and based on others' complaints that I have followed.
There are five steps to filing a formal complaint with the DOT:
Use my Microsoft Word Complaint Template to write your complaint. Explain the airline's violation as clearly as you can. Use exhibits if needed to support the factual allegations. Consider exhibits to show relevant screenshots, call recording transcripts, ticket printouts, correspondence with customer relations, etc. Be sure to fill in your name in complaint header. Leave the ___ placeholder (after the year) as docket number in your complaint; a docket number gets assigned by DOT staff after submission of the initial complaint. (If you use the complaint to file a reply or other supplemental document, insert the docket number then.)
Avoid including personal information you do not want to reveal to the public. If needed, you can prepare two versions of the file – one "public" (redacted, for uploading to Regulations.gov in step 4 below) and one private (with ticket numbers, passenger names, etc. for sending to DOT staff and airline attorneys in step 5 below).
See sample complaints to confirm format and get a better understanding of typical style.
Find the registered agent for the airline you're complaining about. Use the DOT's dockets for agents for service of process for foreign airlines or for domestic airlines, as appropriate. Insert the agent's name and email onto the Certificate of Service page where indicated. After finding the agent's name, you may need to use web search to find the corresponding email address. Many large airlines use attorneys at outside law firms as their designated agents. In that case, you can check the law firm's web site or even call the law firm's switchboard.
Save the Word file into PDF for upload and submission.
The DOT contacts change from time to time. The three DOT contacts listed above are current (to my knowledge) as of October 2016, but change from time to time.
Here's what to expect after filing:
Once your complaint is docketed at Regulations.gov, you'll usually get an email from DOT staff to that effect. If not, wait a few days, then run a search for your last name on Regulations.gov. Each Regulations.gov docket page provides a mechanism for automatic email notification when new filings are made in that docket. I highly recommend using that notification mechanism, including renewing it annually if your complaint remains unresolved after one year. Sometimes DOT or airline staff may forget to (or otherwise fail to) notify you of a new filing.
Formal complaints are governed by DOT rules contained in 14 CFR 302 subpart D. It's useful to read those rules to learn what to expect.
An airline must respond to your complaint (by filing its "Answer") within 15 days, unless it requests and receives an extension from DOT. DOT staff usually provide such an extension when requested. Airline representatives will ask you to accept, which you virtually must – in the sense that if you declined, the DOT would probably grant the extra time anyway. It's also polite to grant the extra time; the benefit of this formal complaint process is its formality and its rigor, not its speed.
There is no guarantee of any particular timing for DOT judgment or resolution. Many complaints have gone more than a year without resolution. After a lengthy wait, you could inquire with DOT staff or contact your federal representatives to seek their assistance. I have not used these methods.
In general, a complainant has no right to respond to an airline's Answer. If you want to file such a response (a "Reply"), you should seek agreement from the airline to do so (typically followed by a counter-response from the airline, called a "Surreply"). You must then seek DOT permission to reply. This can be an informal email to DOT attorneys, CC'ing the airline representative. You may want to propose a maximum page length, timing, and purpose. You'll adapt the Complaint Template to file your reply, including replacing the "Complaint" heading with "Reply" (in every location including first page caption, second page caption, first page header, and subsequent page header) and adding the docket number on the first and second pages.
Once you file a formal complaint, you should avoid informal communications with DOT staff on the same subject.
Others have reported that airlines sometimes attempt to "buy off" a complainant privately – provide some money or whatever a complainant is requesting, in exchange for the complainant withdrawing the complaint. If you accept such an offer and withdraw your complaint, there will probably be no further proceedings in the docket, and hence nothing to benefit other passengers with similar problems. On the other hand you'll get an immediate personal benefit.
I am unable to provide legal assistance to complainants, but I am often able to provide procedural pointers based on my experience in this area. Contact me.
My sincere thanks to Edward Hasbrouck, whose special knowledge of all things aviation-consumer spurred my interest in this subject. Thanks also to Mike Borsetti, whose knowledge of fare rules helped me understand my rights.