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Airline Passenger Rights, 8 levels of resolving airline disputes in your favor

Your Complete Dispute Resolution Guide

Passenger frustrations

Nothing evokes more passenger fury than the confusion surrounding airline passenger rights. When our flight is not proceeding smoothly tempers tend to flare.

The lack of knowledge about how to exercise your rights or even what your rights are can be a challenging task.

Passenger rights rules are governed differently between different countries and regions. Thus your rights depend on which passenger rules your flight operate under.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Most airlines do a great job in handling passenger service issues. Passenger issues will happen and mistakes are made. That’s a normal part of life. No one is perfect.

What separates a good airline from a bad or an ugly one is how the good airlines have learned how to treat the passenger right when a mistake does happen. They try to work towards a resolution on your behalf. The good ones have also trained their agents very well.

As a professional in the airline industry and in my opinion, most customer service agents and flight attendants do a fantastic job! They are the unsung heroes of the airline. These heroes give everything they’ve got to please the customers, under constant stress.

Non-U.S. Airlines

If you fly on airlines from some foreign countries you’re occasionally bound to run into a passenger nightmare. These airlines qualify as a real “customer service department-loser” of an airline. This is most often as a result of incompetent upper management. They simply haven’t figured how to run an airline smoothly.  

Certain low-cost international budget airlines don’t even have any of their own employees at major airports outside their own country! They use third-party contractors to handle their flights.

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These third-party contractors, in turn, are often poorly trained by the airline they have contracted to represent. They work under low pay and no benefits, with very little, if any decision making authority from their airline. Yet they do their best.

Typical airline passenger customer service issues

The events described below are common triggers to airline passenger disputes:

  1. Flight delays and cancellations.
  2. Ticket changes.
  3. Gate agents blatantly lying about the real reasons or the true or unknown time expected for a delay.
  4. Not receiving that ticket refund you were promised weeks ago.
  5. Being involuntarily bumped from a flight, or being the victim of overbooking.
  6. Lost or damaged luggage, treated with no constructive feedback. Then, being told to come to the airport to pick up your own luggage if finally found.
  7. Tarmac delays after pushback.
  8. Not responding to or very slow no solution response to the email sent to the airline’s published customer service email address.
  9. Reaching incompetent customer service reps when making a phone call to the airline. These reps are often outsourced to third world countries, to people with no real decision making authority  or knowledge of solutions.
  10. Occasionally dealing with some completely incompetent airport customer service agents.
  11. Your issue being treated with total silence, being ignored, or no feedback from the airline.
how to exercise passenger rights, enforce, step-by-step

Here is a step-by-step checklist on how to handle your dispute for a resolution. That is if you suspect that the airline has violated your passenger rights.

Step 1: Start at the gate.

Try to resolve the issue with the agent on the spot. Work out an acceptable solution for you, if possible.

If you are not getting anywhere with the gate agent, ask to speak with the agent’s supervisor or manager. In addition to these agents, major airlines also have ground service coordinators trained to help passengers with solutions to different problems.

Step 2: Make a phone call to customer service.

If you are not getting any results at the gate, try calling the airline’s toll-free customer service line. Be firm and request an immediate resolution to your issue. Again, escalate your inquiry to supervisor level, if necessary.

Incredibly, there are non-U.S. airlines only operating their toll-free customer service department during local regular business hours in their home country. If you need immediate customer service assistance during their closed hours, you may be out of luck for an immediate solution to a passenger rights problem. 

Step 3: Proceed to that airline’s customer service counter.

This step is only feasible if you have plenty of time before departure still, and if your airline has such a counter at your location. Customer service counters are often packed with passengers waiting in line. Arm yourself with lots of patience.

Agents at a service counter are equipped to handle and solve most any legit customer complaint you may have. Here you can also ask to be rerouted on a different flight if that would be an acceptable resolution for you.

If you are unable to resolve the issue on the spot you may find yourself with no choice but to leave the airport with your flight plan ruined. This is where you need to take your rights to the next level!

Here are some items you need to keep in mind at any level of dispute solving with the airline. They will aid you in finding a resolution.

Travel vouchers

Make sure you read the fine print before accepting any travel voucher. Vouchers are often severely restricted for actual use and often end up never being used for that reason. A reroute on another plane or cash compensation on the spot is always king.  Be persistent, but courteous to the agent. Agents are just doing their job.

The Contract of Carriage

The Contract of Carriage is the airline’s own policy for handling passenger rights. It’s an agreement between you and the airline covering how disputes are handled per that airline’s company policy. You should find it on the airline’s website. Ask for a copy from the agent if you don’t find it online. The contract may provide a procedure or an answer to the handling of your issue.

Create a trail of evidence

Having proof of things should your dispute escalate to an unresolved status. The service reputation of individual airlines varies from the best to worst. Jot down notes what was said. Save all paperwork, such as receipts and boarding passes for evidence and reference.

If you purchased your ticket through a third party 

This is often a big “gotcha” when you encounter issues with your flight. This is where dealing with your airline directly may become a further problem. If you purchase your ticket through a third party flight search engine the airlines love to refer you to where you bought your ticket. Airlines will often tell you to contact that flight search engine directly for a resolution. 

My advice to avoid inviting potential deeper problems down the line? Always purchase your airline tickets directly on the airline’s own website!

If your dispute involves a credit card refund from the airline or third-party seller 

This may apply to flight cancellation disputes, or when you paid extra for fees such as baggage fees using your credit card. Wait until the deadline the airline gave you for seeing the refund back in your account before you file a dispute with your credit card company. If the airline denies a refund all together, then file your credit card dispute immediately.

Check-in luggage 

When you pack for your trip always take pictures inside and outside the suitcases you want to check for your flight. In the event of a lost luggage dispute, you want picture proof of the suitcase quality and contents to validate your claim.

Travel Insurance 

Always consider buying travel insurance for your trip, covering things like compensation for trip cancellation and loss of luggage. Include medical coverage too, unless your own medical insurance covers your needs for the trip.

Step 4: Your last resort dealing with the airline or third-party ticket seller direct

Getting nowhere with your dispute while at the airport means you have to continue your fight after leaving the airport. you should now take your matters to a corporate level of the airline and/or the third party you bought your tickets from. here’s’ how you do that:

  • File a complaint on the airline’s or third party’s website, if a complaint link is available there.
  • Call the airline’s or third party’s customer phone number listed on their website, even if you already did that while at the airport.
  • Call your travel agent, if you used one.

If you paid for your ticket with a credit card your case involves a ticket refund entitlement: Simply file a dispute for a refund with your credit card company.

Whether you are able to solve your issue with the airline or not: If your flight was operating under ie. EU rules (see step 5) you may already have qualified for an automatic compensation from your airline. One such condition would be if your flight was canceled. In that case, each passenger on that flight can file for a 600 euro compensation.

Do NOT wait while you are fighting your airline to file for compensation. Do that now! Furthermore, most airlines will not volunteer to inform you of this right. You have to initiate your own claim.

If this still doesn’t solve the problem:

Do your online research to try to locate the name of the senior officer of the airline responsible for customer operations. Write him or her an email or a snail-mail letter directly. Remember, you want records of everything you do, so make sure to send any snail-mail as registered mail.

If you write directly to an airline CEO your letter will most likely never be seen by the CEO himself or herself. Rather, chances are your letter will be routed down the ranking ladder to someone dealing with customer service.

Airlines most often create their own set of rules, called the Contract of Carriage. The first international set of rules to protect airline passengers were created in 1929. 

The 1929 Warsaw Convention rules set the standards for passenger protection.

The protections given to travelers by the Warsaw Convention were replaced in 1999 under the current Montreal Convention rules.

Step 5: If you are unable to come to a resolution with your airline it is now time to take seek help and monetary recovery from the authorities.

airline passenger help from government

Passenger rights law in certain parts of the world entitles you to compensation under certain circumstances. This compensation is extra money (beyond i.e. a ticket refund) that you may be entitled to.  If you are entitled to compensation under certain passenger rights laws you have two options:

File a claim directly with the airline. In addition, file a complaint with the passenger rights governing body for your flight.

Passenger Rights Governing Bodies

Sadly there are few governing bodies in place to oversee passenger’s rights. The major governing bodies are the United States Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) and the European Union (EU) rules.

Although a European carrier operates under EU rules they also become bound to D.O.T rules when their flights operate out of the U.S. Thus, if you have a problem with a European carrier on U.S. soil the D.O.T. rules apply simultaneously with the EU rules.

How to file a passenger rights claim with the authorities

Flights operating to and from European countries:

Flights in Europe operate under European Union (EU) Regulation 261/04, which provides air passengers compensation for flight delays, cancellations, and lost luggage. 

Here’s an excerpt from the EU’s own website, on when and how their rules apply.

The rules apply if your flight:

  • is within the EU and is operated either by an EU or a non-EU airline.
  • arrives in the EU from outside the EU and is operated by an EU airline.
  • departs from the EU to a non-EU country operated by an EU or a non-EU airline.

EU means the 28 EU countries, including Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands as well as Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. It does not include the Faeroe Islands, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

You can get your EU Complaint Form here.

Flights operating to and from the U.S.: 

In the U.S. the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) oversees that the airlines adhere to their strict D.O.T. passenger rights rules. The D.O.T. typically crack down hard on airlines violating the D.O.T. passenger rules. Potential fines into the millions of dollars per incident are not unheard of when an airline breaks federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) and D.O.T. rules.

The D.O.T.’s rules also cover how the airlines must handle monetary compensation. i.e. You can make changes or even cancel that reservation within 24 hours if you booked your flight at least seven days in advance. The airline cannot charge you a high cancellation fee. If you are denied boarding, the airline must give you a refund, even if you bought a nonrefundable ticket.

In a dispute with any carrier operating in and out of the U.S., I’d recommend you file a complaint with the D.O.T. at the same time you file a complaint or a claim for compensation with your airline. The D.O.T. is your best friend and backup for overseeing that your legit complaint or claim is being handled efficiently by your airline.

You can access the D.O.T.s’ Aviation Consumer Protection website here. Their site explains your D.O.T. rights, as well as provides you with a link to their complaint submission form.

Passenger Rights in Other World Regions:

South and Central American carriers are generally good at following the international best practices for handling passengers rights.

Airlines operating under rules similar to EU regulation include Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines.

In Australia, there is no legislation providing air passenger rights to compensation for flight delays and cancellations. The airlines strictly set their own rules. 

Chinese airlines are among the worst passenger rights abusers in the world. They are typically not following international practice of offering financial compensation from delays. Chinese airlines are filled with passenger horror story reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor. Other Asian airlines are generally very bad, as well.

Other Government Resources for Passenger Rights

If you cannot find the answers to the passenger rights solution in the part of the world where you are located I’d suggest you do a Google search for passenger rights and the name of the country where you are.

Regardless of where in the world you fly most, every country will have some resources telling you what options you have when you encounter problems as an airline passenger. Some government sites will simply refer you to the airline (where you are back to square one).

Others elaborate more on what your options are. One such reference is the Civil Aviation Authority in the United Kingdom.

A Case Study of how the U.S. D.O.T. helped passengers

Here’s an example of how the U.S. Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) helped a party of two passengers who had a bad experience with one of the worst reputed customer service oriented airlines in the world.

The passengers filed a complaint with the D.O.T. as a result of non-existent customer service or airline customer communication. The same passengers were also unaware they were entitled to a 1,200 Euro (about $1,404 USD) compensation for the flight cancellation.

Since Norwegian Air operated this flight out of the U.S. to Europe they came under not only the D.O.T. rules but European Union rules, as well. The D.O.T. contacted Norwegian Air about the complaint, and Norwegian Air answered the D.O.T. with a CC to the passengers.

#1, Passengers sending a complaint brief to the D.O.T.:

airline passenger complaint letter to the dot

#2, D.O.T. forwarding the passengers’ complaint to Norwegian Air:

#3, Norwegian Air answering the D.O.T. with a cc to the passengers:

Step 6:

Engage a third-party to take care of the filing and processing on your behalf. Let others do the work for you while you relax.  If you engage a third-party service to help you they typically charge a percentage of the award as their compensation. Please read the fine print before you engage any third-party help.

These third-party services act very aggressively on your behalf. They will also push hard to get you money for other trip expenses you had, such as the cost of taking a Super-shuttle to and from the airport if a flight was canceled.

Here is one third-party source with excellent reviews:

I used Air-Collect once myself. I was extremely happy with their service, communication, efficiency  and competency. I ended up getting the maximum amount of compensation, thanks to their excellent handling of the matter.

Step 7: If you find yourself not getting anywhere with the airline

angry airline passenger

You can always consider taking your airline case to the Small Claims Court. Proceedings at Small Claims Courts take place without lawyers present. Simply explain your case to the Judge and you may quickly settle your claim.  

Step 8: If you have a true horror story to share about your airline’s customer service

One of the worse things you can do for any business is to resort to getting your story in the hands of the media. If you are dealing with an absolute customer disaster treatment from an airline you may consider spreading the word about your mistreatment.

Start by taking advantage of the very powerful world of the internet! Spread the word. Find some popular review places to voice your opinion, such as

If your story is true of interest to the masses simply contact your local TV station. They love sending a reporter over to cover a hot story.

If your story is valid you can be sure the airline will notice!

Author Disclaimer

Captain Les:

  • is not a Legal professional, nor is he qualified to give Legal advice to anyone. Thus the matters discussed in this blog is not intended as Legal advice. Consult a qualified Legal professional, such as a Lawyer for any Legal or contractual advice you may need. 
  • is covering subject matters in this blog strictly based on the personal opinion and airline travel experiences of his own. 
  • is not responsible for any errors, misinformation or omissions in this blog. 

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