How to Write an Airline Complaint Letter

Runway Rage.  Flight Frustration. Airline Animosity. We’ve all felt them.  As convenient as air travel might be at times, there are occasions in which the negatives far outweigh the positives.  On those occasions, we practice our yoga breathing, realize that to at least some degree these problems are part of flying, and, most importantly, we plot our revenge in the form of extorting future free flights.


Some might say that it’s unethical to demand compensation after a frustrating experience, but I don’t see it as anything more than giving an airline another chance to redeem itself and earn back my business.

When there are failures, airlines can best compensate for them with superb customer service, but often the stress of the situation leads to customer service failures, as well – compounding the problem.

When that happens, we owe it to the system to alert the proper people to ensure that customer satisfaction demands have been met.  I’d urge you to use the online forms that most airlines have available – this is the surefire way of getting your message to those people qualified to act accordingly – no sense in telling the story 6 times, just tell it to the right people once – and this is how you tell it:

  1.  Be brief and direct, including all pertinent details – Don’t ramble on with irrelevant details about why you took in the first place.  You might think you’re personalizing it, but keep in mind that whoever reads this, also reads hundreds of these messages a day. The Customer Service feedback forms have character limits for a reason.  Include your full name, loyalty number, the flight number, departure and arrival cities, dates, and record locator. Usually the forms have places for most of these, don’t repeat them.
  2. Don’t wait too long to submit it – A complaint that comes more than 2 months after a flight comes off as an illegitimate grievance – something contrived.  Your immediate feedback demonstrates your genuine sentiment and keeps you inside acceptable timeframes for compensation.
  3. Identify your loss, and quantify it – If you don’t have a quantifiable loss, the airline will have a hard time justifying any form of reparation.  You need to state clearly what the problem cost you, i.e. “As a result of these delays, I was forced to pay for an additional night in a hotel and had to take an extra day of vacation – I value this loss as more than $200 in personal expenses.”
  4. Don’t expect too much, but ask for enough – If you ask for the moon, they’ll write you off as a “free-stuff-complainer.”  You want the person on the other side of your letter to see you as someone like them – someone with a legitimate complaint that can be reasoned with.  Also, you don’t want to find yourself in the situation when you get what you asked for and then feel like you undersold yourself.  Find the happy medium there.
  5. Say something memorable – The idea here is just to leave some kind of positive, memorable impression on the customer service representative.  Include a single non-pertinent detail that makes you identifiable – an example in our letter below is a reference to begging for information like a child begs for cookies.  That way your letter becomes remembered as the “begging for cookies” letter, or something along those lines.
  6. Don’t mention the weather – The moment that you start talking about rain, cold, fog, snow, or anything of the sort, they click a button that sends your letter to purgatory, and you receive a form letter explaining that they regret your misfortune and obliterating any form of recompense. If weather had a role in the problems that befell you, ignore it altogether.  Your letter must focus on their controllables.
  7. Don’t be rude, but let the facts speak – The person reading your letter is not the same gate agent who told you they weren’t concerned about your meeting.  There is absolutley no sense in berating them for it.  What you want is for the letter to communicate the ways in which the company failed to live up to your expectations. Allow the facts to tell the story in a way that justifies your dissatisfaction.
  8. Include a compliment or two – If constructive criticism works on spouses and children, it ought to work with Delta CSRs, too.  No one wants to feel like a total failure, and the moment in which someone feels like you are implacable, they’ll be less than inclined to offer you the slightest smidgen of sweetness.  Include a mention of the small fraction of the experience in which you were satisfied – this tells them that you’re not a hopeless case.

Now that you have these helpful guidelines, here’s an example of a note I recently drafted for Sheldon’s wife who had a series of misfortunate events on her American flights.  Shae and her cousin each received a $200 voucher for their troubles.

An example of a 1500 Character Airline Complaint Letter

(All of the pertinent details were entered into separate fields, otherwise I’d have needed to include them as well).

There were 5 letdowns on this flight experience:

  • A mechanical error delayed our outbound flight; our connection was so tight that our bags arrived 24 hours late.
  • The return flight was delayed, then canceled due to a computer outage. There was no communication for 3 hours while we waited.
  • I waited on hold for 3 1/2 hrs (collectively) trying to re-book.
  • When we were re-booked, the first flight was also delayed, causing us a missed connection at DFW. The agent changed our connecting flight to a Delta flight. At DFW, the Delta agent said we were not on that flight and “You’ve got major ticketing problems and need to visit with AA.”
  • We finally got on the 9:05pm flight to SLC. It was also delayed for 45 min for maintenance issues. Arriving exhausted at 11:30pm with children and a 3 hr drive, we had to get a hotel.  No AA employee was anywhere to be found.

These failures were compounded by AA employees who were curt, insensitive, and ineffective. We talked to an innumerable chain of people and found ourselves begging for information like a child begs for a cookie.

As a result of these failures, we lost our baggage for 24 hours and incurred expenses for two extra nights and the 22+ additional hours we spent in the airport. I value these inconveniences at more than $250 per passenger.

I would appreciate if your company would compensate for our loss with a $500 voucher or 50k AA points so that we can give AA the chance to provide a better experience next time we fly.

1500 characters is quite the challenge to tell this entire story, but we’ve gotten the details across in ways that will allow the company to see how we can again be ambassadors for their company if we’re treated right – and that’s where the decision point seems to lie.

Here’s another post we’ve done about making a complaint about a flight that was richly rewarded.

I hope this has been helpful for you, and if you liked it, please do us a favor and like this post on Facebook by clicking in the left sidebar. We’re sure you’ll like everything else we post about on WorldWanderlusting.  We’ve taken advantage of frequent flyer mile programs to enjoy incredible adventures all over the world, and we’ll show you exactly how we’re doing it.  Please comment with any other ideas and check back often for more travel tips for world wanderlusters.

I’ll now include the non-condensed originally drafted letter – a beast that no airline employee could find the time to read, but a compelling case for recompense for a sad series of events.

Dear American Airlines:

As a frequent customer of yours I’m writing in regards to a very distasteful experience I had with your company.  I booked a flight to visit my aunt in Knoxville, TN with my 21-month-old son and my 6-year-old nephew (X) on April 10th, 2013.  It’s also worth mentioning that I was 25 weeks pregnant at the time and feeling quite tired.  My record locator is XOXOXO.  As loyal customers who frequently fly on American Airlines we had amassed some AAdvantage points and used them to book the flights.

The first leg was from SLC to DFW.  This flight left late due to a mechanical error, which was the first of many problems in this fiasco.  The plane arrived with barely enough time for us to make the connecting flight.  As we approached the gate, out of breath from running, the agent said with a surprised voice, “I didn’t think you guys would make this flight.”  We were the last to board before the gate closed, with the connection being so tight we were lucky to make the flight, our luggage on the other hand, did not make it.  Due to the mechanical problem, which caused the delay, we didn’t have our luggage for nearly 24 hours.  If you’ve ever traveled with a child, or three, you know that everything needed simply can’t fit on your carry on, which left us without many essential items.  The bags finally arrived at the TYS airport, and we were able to pick them up the following day.

We had a marvelous trip with our family.  We laughed, and enjoyed some really nice weather.  Unfortunately the events that followed will forever overshadow the fun times that we had on our vacation.

On April 16th, 2013 our flight was scheduled from TYS to DFW at 2:05 pm.  We arrived at the airport early, which would allow for enough time to check in, go through security, and be at the gate to catch the flight. As we waited for our flight, your company experienced a major computer outage, which kept all AA flights grounded.  Communication from the employees was not very clear regarding the issues that your company was having.  After a three-hour delay, the employees announced that there wasn’t a set timeline on the issue, and anyone who needed to go home could be booked on another airline.

My cousin approached the ticket counter to discuss our options.   Realizing that rebooking on another airline would cost American Airlines a great deal of money, we responsibility turned them down and said that we could wait to get on another AA flight.  With timelines of all the delays still being very unclear and having to care for three small children the agent suggested that we simply get our bags and leave the airport in hopes of catching a flight the following morning.  She said we’d probably just need to return to the airport early the next day without knowing if we could get on a flight because it would be difficult to get through by calling the 1-800 number to rebook.  Although we left the airport uncertain of when we would actually be able to go home it seemed like the most sensible option traveling with three young kids.  We collected our luggage and called our aunt, who lives nearly 45 minutes from the airport, for a ride.  Our aunt had to make special arrangements with her job in order to pick us up and bring us back to her home.

That night we repacked all of their belongings and planned for an early morning at the airport.  However, we were unsure if we were even going to be able to get a flight in the morning with all of the delays that occurred.  We didn’t really want to inconvenience our aunt again by having her take us out of her way to the airport only to have to come pick us up again, and simply waiting for countless hours in airports didn’t sound like a great option traveling with all the children.  So we decided to call the 1-800 number in hopes we could rebook the flights.  After an hour on hold we felt a little dismayed, and after two hours we felt disgruntled.  At one point someone answered, but we were quickly put back on hold.  After staying up late to try to figure out this disastrous situation I spoke to my husband, who decided to try calling the Spanish customer service line, which only took 50 minutes to get a live agent who helped us rebook the flights.  We were able to get booked on a flight leaving at 2:05 pm the following day, the 17th.

The following day felt like Groundhog’s day as we prepared our things and headed toward the airport. Checking the bags, and going through security for the second day in a row was a cumbersome process, but we made it through.

The next thing we knew, the flight had been delayed.  None of the agents explained to us what was happening.  Then it was delayed again, and again.  What seemed like an easy solution was getting harder by the moment.  Children began to be restless, and being 25 weeks pregnant the stress and anxiety of the situation began taking a toll on me as well.

After realizing that we weren’t going to make the connecting flight, my cousin approached the gate again to figure out our options as I waited with the kids.  The employees at the counter explained that we would now have to be booked on a Delta flight out of Dallas because we were going to miss the connecting flight.  We reluctantly agreed to make this change, even though it was going to delay our arrival into Salt Lake City.  Furthermore it was explained to us that the tickets could not be printed at the Knoxville airport, and that it was our responsibility to visit with the Delta agents in Dallas.  However, they assured us that everything had effectively been transferred and our seats had been reserved on the Delta flight.

We had now spent two days in a row waiting at the airport for four hours, or eight between the two days before the flight finally took off.  We felt relieved to know that our layover in Dallas would be short because we had now been booked on the Delta flight.  Upon arrival in Dallas we hurried to the Delta gate to which we had been assigned.  They were already boarding the plane, feeling relieved we approached the Delta agent and explained the situation.  He looked in the computer and said, “You’ve got major ticketing problems and need to visit with AA.”  He explained that we did not, in fact, have tickets for the flight and that we would have to go back to AA to fix the problem.  Frustrated, we explained that we would miss the flight because there would be not enough time to make it back to the Delta gate.  The agent explained that the American agent in Knoxville had not properly booked us on the Delta flight.

At my wit’s end I walked away frustrated, knowing that we would need to visit with another employee to get rebooked on another flight.  The children were tired at this point, and were ready to be done.  Knowing that the bags would already be in Salt Lake, we knew we had to make it to SLC that night, or, like the first day of the trip, we would be without our bags.

When we finally found an available agent, they rebooked us on the 9:05pm flight out of Dallas headed to Salt Lake City.  We tried explaining to this agent everything we’d been through and how tired the children would be once we finally arrived in Salt Lake City due to the extensive delays. The agent told us that we would have to talk to an AA agent in SLC and that there was nothing she could do for us.  So we roamed the airport, and tried to entertain the tired children who were much past their bedtime.  We found the gate that had the 9:05 flight and waited at the gate.

The moment came to board the plane, and the gate agent made an announcement saying that the flight would be delayed for maintenance issues.  No timeline was given, but they just said the plane would be delayed.  By this point the children were crying, and grumpy, and they had a right to feel that way.  My cousin and I felt exhausted as well.  Chasing after three small kids in airports all day is no easy task.

After another 45 minute delay, the plane finally began boarding and was headed for Salt Lake.  We arrived in Salt Lake after 11:30pm, which was over five hours later than we had anticipated.  There was NO CHANCE we would be driving an additional 3.5 hours to make it home that night.  Not after everything you had put us though.

We tried to find a gate agent, but nobody was anywhere to be found.  There wasn’t anyone at the gate, and no employees were found at the ticketing line downstairs either.  The only American employee around was the woman at the baggage claim who explained that she had no authority to issue a hotel voucher.

This experience has caused me to feel like your policy is simply to “pass the buck” onto someone else time and time again until there isn’t anyone at the end of the line.  It is too late at that point to go back and explain the situation to the American Airlines employee.  The customer service number would easily result in another two-hour wait on hold, so reluctantly we spent $88 on a hotel that was a result of a series of delays on behalf of your company.  Is this how you treat all of your preferred customers?

With all the delays included we finally arrived at our destination over 30 hours later than anticipated.  We had spent over $150 in additional costs between hotels, expensive airport meals, and much needed supplies like diapers.  These costs add up, but what really is more hurting is the way that we felt like American handled the situation.  The employees, rather than helping, were simply passing us along without the help that we needed.  It was a series of problems, one on top of another.  Not just a single failure to perform, which can definitely be understood.

We understand that mistakes happen, computer failures occur and things can’t always run as smoothly as planned. However we don’t understand the lack of customer service that we received.  We felt disregarded and unvalued.  We realize many customers experienced delays and similar problems, but we still felt like things could have been handled better.  We would like to be able to continue to fly with American Airlines, but as I’m sure you understand we have hesitations now due to this horrific experience.

I would hope that you take these complaints into consideration and that you would compensate us for our added expenses.  We would ask that you refund the $88 we spent on the hotel on the night of the 17th of April.  We would also request that you issue me a flight voucher in order to give you another opportunity to show us that your service isn’t always so poor.

You can mail these items to my home address, which is:


If you have further questions regarding this catastrophe, please email me at




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