Frequently asked questions about air travel

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about air travel. You can find more FAQs here.

Before you take off

When should I travel by plane?
When should I avoid flying?
Come on. Everyone flies, don’t they?
How should I book my ticket?
When should I avoid an opaque site?
How do I know if I really have a ticket?
How do I find the lowest fare?
Are there any special tricks to finding a bargain on an international ticket?
When should I buy my airline ticket? Is there a way to game the system?
Can you recommend any tools for finding lower fares?
I think I overpaid for my flight. What now?
I’m getting married, and I can’t wait to take my husband’s last name. Should I do that before my honeymoon?

At the airport

I’m not a frequent flier. What do I need to know about air travel?
How do I find the best economy class seat?
What’s a pre-flight checklist? Why do I need one?
Is it OK to miss a leg of my flight?
What’s a contract of carriage, and why should I care about it?
The system is hopelessly stacked against the passenger. Should I exact my revenge by becoming a travel hacker?
What do I need to know about an airline contract of carriage?
What’s in the contract of carriage?
What does “nonrefundable” mean?
What is codesharing, and why should I care about it?

After your flight

Where am I likely to run into trouble when I fly?
Nice list. Can you offer any more specific advice?
How could I have avoided this in the first place?
Who should I contact when I have a problem?
How do I get DOT to review my case?
How do I persuade the airline to review my case?
Can I sue an airline?
Which airline rules are negotiable?
Which airline rules are non-negotiable?
How long should I wait for a response?


BEFORE YOU TAKE OFF

When should I travel by plane?

✓ When you need to get there quickly. There’s no faster way to cover long distances. A coast-to-coast drive in the United States takes at least four days, but with a good tailwind you can fly the distance in about five hours, often for less than the cost of gas. There are more nonstops than ever before. Just go.

✓ When you have to cross an ocean or the North Pole. If air travel has grown in the U.S., it has grown even faster overseas. There are more choices of international airlines than ever before, so do your homework, whether flying trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic or to Latin America. The newer transpolar routes have made travel much faster between cities like Chicago and New York to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many of those international carriers provide excellent service and are worth researching.

✓ If you love to fly. Jet travel can be thrilling. If you get a little jolt of adrenaline during takeoffs and landings (I admit I do), and love the view from 36,000 feet, then flying is definitely for you. If you have the travel bug, spotting lakes and cities from seven miles up can be a wonderful game to experience with your family and friends. Also, taking pictures out the window (when permitted) can add some adventure to your photo album.

When should I avoid flying?

✓ If you want to take your time. Road trips are one of the best ways to see a place or what’s between places. You can go anywhere, stop when you want to, eat where you want, and get as close to the scenery as you want. There’s no way to experience a place when you’re zipping over it at 550 mph in a plane.

✓ If you’re traveling a short distance. Commuter flights and puddle-jumpers can sometimes take longer, particularly when you factor in the time to get through security, and they may be less convenient. For example, Amtrak’s Acela service between Washington and New York will often get you to your destination faster if you’re headed into Manhattan. However, a small aircraft from Denver to Helena, Mont., can be half a day faster than the 800-mile drive over mountains.

✓ If you suffer from aerophobia. Fear of flying is probably the best reason to stay grounded. If you can drive or take the train, you should. By the way, you can take classes to overcome this fear if you want to. Some flight training schools also offer “discovery” flights to introduce people to flying, and many people take these classes to help overcome their fears.

✓ If you want to avoid the Transportation Security Administration. If you’re put off by having to either walk through a full-body scanner or get patted down, you may want to stick to driving. You’ll have to deal with the TSA if you go to the airport.

Come on. Everyone flies, don’t they?

Not exactly. A fly/no-fly decision is not a no-brainer. You may be able to reach your destination as quickly if you choose another form of transportation. Flying isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t the dominant form of transportation in the United States.

Statistics show that for every mile flown, Americans drive ten. But thanks to stories in travel magazines and on TV that assume the only way to get anywhere is to board a plane, there’s a common misperception that we fly everywhere. Don’t believe everything you read. Ground transportation is still a great choice.

How should I book my ticket?

✓ Use a travel agent. Typically, travel agents don’t receive a commission for booking airfare, so they will only book a ticket if you ask them to, and usually as part of a package. (Some agents charge a service fee for airline tickets.) Some fares, such as complex multistop or multi-airline flights, or an around-the-world ticket, are best left to a professional. Agents also have access to wholesale fares that you might not find online, but be warned that some of these fares come with significant restrictions. For a simple point-to-point itinerary, you may be better off booking yourself.

✓ Book directly. Airlines will happily sell you a ticket through their websites or by phone. If you go that route first, you’ll lose the ability to run a side-by-side price comparison with a competing airline. An airline may also charge a fee to buy a ticket by phone, and it may quote you a higher fare than the one you’d find online. You’ll also receive some benefits, however, such as the ability to customize your fare with optional items like the ability to check a bag, get a confirmed seat reservation, or advance-buy Wi-Fi packages. Airlines sometimes offer direct-booking customers a mileage bonus. You’re also working directly with the airline, so you don’t have a travel agent to call for help if you need to change the ticket, and you’ll be bound by that airline’s policies for changes.

✓ Buy through an online travel agency or aggregator. Online agencies such as Expedia or aggregator sites like Kayak or Hipmunk display most available airfares, allowing you to quickly compare the most convenient routing and find the most affordable ticket price. What’s more, if something goes wrong you can call the online agency for help with everything from rebooking a flight to obtain a refund. Online agencies are excellent research tools, allowing you to search for the lowest available fare, and then book wherever you want. But these sites will not display every airline, every fare combination, or every route. Instead, they might show fares from airlines with which they have preferred relationships — called fare bias. Note: Southwest Airlines, the biggest domestic U.S. carrier, does not make its fares available to Expedia, Orbitz, and other online travel sites. You’ll need to visit Southwest.com to find its fares.

✓ Book opaque. Sites such as Priceline or Hotwire, which allow you to “bid” for a seat and offer discounts of between 20 and 40 percent on some routes. In exchange, you give up certain important benefits, which can include determining the exact departure time, the airline, the precise routing, and the ability to reserve a seat, collect frequent flier miles, or change a ticket. Opaque sites are a great option for leisure travelers who are flexible or who are willing to fly somewhere without being on a specific schedule. Most airlines charge more for fares booked at the last minute, so when you need to fly in the next seven days and are flexible, the opaque option may work best.

When should I avoid an opaque site?

One useful term to know is “opaque,” which means “not transparent.” We refer to sites like Priceline and Hotwire as “opaque” sites because they either partially or totally conceal the price, company and exact itinerary until you’ve paid for them.

You can save lots of money, but there’s a huge catch. Whether you’re booking an airline ticket, car rental or hotel, an opaque site will bill your credit card immediately, and the purchase is 100 percent nonrefundable. So don’t go opaque unless you’re sure. For a leg up on making an informed bid, check out Bidding Travel (conveniently run by Priceline) or the Bidding For Travel forum.

How do I know if I really have a ticket?

Most airline tickets are known as e-tickets, or a travel documents that are stored in a database that can be retrieved when needed. So if you’re not getting a piece of paper, how do you know if the ticket is any good? Right after your travel agent sends you your confirmation, go to the airline’s website and check the status of your e-ticket. A valid e-ticket will show as “issued” and open for use. A good e-ticket will remain open for use until you check in. If it isn’t, call your agent or airline.

How do I find the lowest fare?

Airlines use sophisticated algorithms to calculate demand for their seats. These so-called yield management systems mean that the price you’re being quoted for a flight may not be the lowest one. It’s based on demand for that flight based on historical averages. What’s more, if you don’t push the “buy” button now, the fare may be gone in a few minutes. Air travelers often find these systems frustrating and unfair, but remember if you buy, U.S. carriers are required to either “hold” your ticket for 24 hours or offer you a full refund, with certain exceptions.

Unfortunately, fixing the system sounds a lot simpler than it is. For example, if you’ve ever tried to buy a ticket and had the site tell you that the fare was “unavailable” (though a more expensive one was), then you’ve probably felt like the victim of a bait-and-switch. Truth is, you were probably a victim of caching — the practice of storing data on a site so that it can be retrieved quickly. The website just failed to refresh the data, so when you tried to buy the ticket, it was shown as already gone. The lowest advertised fare, or a special sale fare, also might not be available on your day of travel, especially if it’s a Friday or the day before a major holiday.

Are there any special tricks to finding a bargain on an international ticket?

Sort of. In addition to the usual suspects — online agencies like Expedia and meta-search sites like Kayak — you can find bargains deals through ticket consolidators. These are often offline (bricks and mortar) agents who buy tickets and bulk and the resell them to the public, or online through a site like Vayama.com. Note: There may be additional restrictions with these types of tickets, so read the fine print carefully, please.

When should I buy my airline ticket? Is there a way to game the system?

Book a ticket when you need it. And no, there isn’t. But it’s a qualified “no.” Research suggests that if you buy your ticket when most people do — between one and four months before you fly — you’re likely to find the lowest price. Don’t push the button too early or too late, because fares tend to rise, especially as you close in on your departure date. Some airfare soothsayers claim you can find a bargain by waiting until a particular day and time, like Wednesday at 1 a.m. in the airline’s time zone. But the savings are minimal and probably not worth your time, not to mention the lost sleep. As Srikanth Sastry, a software engineer for Google Flights, recently told an online forum, “The expected value of waiting is negative.”

Can you recommend any tools for finding lower fares?

Yes. Most airlines publish free electronic newsletters or email alerts, but you can also sign up for email notifications from a third-party site like FareCompare or online travel agencies like Orbitz. They’ll let you know if your desired ticket is on sale. Legitimate fare sales don’t last long, so don’t hesitate if you see something you want to book.

If you want to know what people paid for the same flight in the past, you can run a fare history search of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s consumer fares database.The database can be searched at FareReport. This is particularly helpful if you’re making a bid on an airfare through an opaque site and need to get a general idea of a competitive fare.

A fare predictor such as Bing can also help you determine if prices are still too high, and if they’re likely to fall. Again, don’t wait too long; airfares usually rise 14 days before the scheduled flight, and then again seven days before the flight departs. Wait too long and you can pay a lot more than you wanted. If you’re flying 6 months from now, it might be wise to wait for a fare sale, but don’t expect ticket prices to drop a month from departure.

Once you’ve purchased your fare, you can also use a fare tracker like Yapta, which helps secure a refund of the fare difference if the price of your ticket drops. Note: Most major airlines will not refund a fare difference unless it’s more than $150, so don’t get too excited.

I think I overpaid for my flight. What now?

Relax. Your airfare probably represents no more than a third of your trip expenses. You’ll save yourself lots of time and misery by taking a deep breath and following this advice: If you see an airfare you can afford, book it now, and don’t look back.

You might be able to find a less expensive fare, but I can practically guarantee that you’ll waste hours trying to find it — hours that could be better spent doing something more productive.

Airlines have spent a small fortune on yield management technology, but foiling it by subscribing to every fare alert newsletter, reading every airfare blog, and using every tool at your disposal in order to save $10 on your next flight is a meaningless victory. Ask yourself: Is your time really worth only a few dollars an hour? Probably not.

I’m getting married, and I can’t wait to take my husband’s last name. Should I do that before my honeymoon?

No. Wait until after your honeymoon. I’ve lost count of the number of times a devastated newlywed contacted me, asking for help changing the name on her ticket back to her maiden name, so she could catch a flight to her honeymoon. Some airlines will change the last name as a courtesy, if you can show a marriage license — but don’t count on it. Always book the name on your passport.

AT THE AIRPORT

I’m not a frequent flier. What do I need to know about air travel?

If you only fly occasionally, you might be in for a surprise the next time you board a plane. Here are a few of the recent changes you’ll notice:

✓ Air travel is “commoditized.” There’s virtually no difference between airlines if you’re flying in economy class. This is called commoditization, and it’s perhaps the biggest change since the industry was deregulated in 1978 during the Carter administration. As far as passengers are concerned, a seat is a seat. Unfortunately, this removes some of the motivation to create a better economy class section. In the minds of many air travelers, it’s a race to the bottom, with narrow, uncomfortable seats that have no leg room as the industry standard. Today, while the planes are usually the same, Delta or JetBlue tend to have slightly more space in economy class than budget carriers. Some airlines have begun trying to merchandise on-board features such as more leg room, early boarding, to de-commoditize economy class, and squeeze even more revenue out of passengers, but by and large, seats remain a commodity.

✓ Most tickets come with lots of limitations. Most airline tickets are super restrictive. If you want to make a change, you’ll pay a $100 to $200 fee plus any fare difference. You can’t easily correct the name on a reservation, sometimes even to fix a typographical error. If you miss your flight, the airline will offer to put you on the next flight if you buy a new ticket. These restrictions are bound to get even tighter as airlines come up with new ways to create more revenue. Airlines sell unrestricted tickets, but they are often two to three times more expensive than a restricted ticket. Typically, the only folks who can afford them are business travelers.

✓ There’s a fee for almost everything. Airlines used to earn most of their revenue from the sale of tickets. But today, in part because of competition, higher fuel prices, and changing business models, airlines generate a sizable portion of their profits through fees. You’ll probably pay extra to check your bags, and maybe for an advance seat assignment. Meals are also extra if you’re sitting in economy class on a domestic flight. While some airlines will do their best to disclose all surcharges as early in the booking process as possible, others try to profit through “gotcha” fees added after you’ve made your purchase. You should assume that everything will cost extra.

How do I find the best economy class seat?

If you want an edge on those airlines that think one size fits all, you’re in luck. Sites such as Seat Expert and Seat Guru can tell you exactly how much space (in inches) there is between seats on all airlines. Routehappy even rates the seats and allows you to find the most comfortable seat for the flight you want.

What’s a pre-flight checklist? Why do I need one?

Before you fly, here’s an essential checklist. Ignore these basics and you might not be able to fly.

☐ Is your name spelled correctly?

☐ Are the dates right? Are your times correct? (AM or PM)

☐ Do you have a confirmation number and/or have you confirmed the flight with your agent or airline?

☐ Does the airline and travel agent have your most up-to-date contact information?

☐ Do you know where your flight is leaving from and which airline is operating it? (Some flights are “codeshare” flight operated by another airline, operating out of a different terminal.)

Is it OK to miss a leg of my flight?

Generally, no. Most airlines will automatically cancel all flight bookings in your itinerary if you miss one flight segment, even if it was not your fault that you couldn’t catch the flight. If you miss one segment, let the airline know so it can rebook you. If you don’t let it know, you may get stuck on a stopover and have to pay for a new a full-fare ticket to continue your trip and return home.

What’s a contract of carriage, and why should I care about it?

A contract of carriage, sometimes also referred to as the conditions of carriage, is the legal agreement between you and the airline. It is by far the most important reference when it comes to your rights as an air traveler.

The contract usually comes in at least two flavors: the domestic contract, which regulates U.S. flights, and the international contract. These are legally binding contracts. The U.S. government requires airlines to follow them, although it doesn’t set them. In other words, if an airline says it will offer a hotel room to passengers on a delayed flight, then the carrier must do so, although the government doesn’t say it must put that provision in the contract. Additionally, a ticket tariff — that’s the fine print in the actual ticket — informs you of other restrictions, and federal laws and regulations may also apply. But the contract is key.

The system is hopelessly stacked against the passenger. Should I exact my revenge by becoming a travel hacker?

It’s true, airline rules can be so hopelessly confusing and counterintuitive. They’re just begging to be gamed.

Consider this scenario: You need to fly from New York to Chicago for two days, without a Saturday night stayover. The fares are ridiculously expensive. But you can buy two roundtrip tickets and throw away one portion of each one — a practice called “throwaway ticketing” — and pay less than that first option.

This is a perfectly legal use of a ticket, but it violates the airline’s rules, which, oddly, stipulate that you must use the entire ticket as issued.

My advice? Don’t go for option two, because the airline has sophisticated tracking software that will hunt down your hacking butt and confiscate your frequent flier miles or even bill you the fare difference. And whatever you do, don’t get your agent involved in this kind of nonsense. Your agent could lose her ability to ticket the airline unless she pays a nonnegotiable “debit” memo, or fine.

What do I need to know about an airline contract of carriage?

✓ It’s an “adhesion” contract that applies only to you. The contract of carriage is one-sided, binding passengers, but not the airline. So, for example, if you cancel your flight before you leave, you may lose some or all of the value of your ticket. If an airline cancels the same, it may be able to get away with it.

✓ You can’t negotiate it. Think you can make revisions and send it back to the airline? Not a chance. You agree to it when you buy your ticket. In fact, you agreed to it without knowing that you agreed to it.

✓ It can change anytime without warning. Airlines often revise their contracts, and when they do, they do not tell their customers. So the terms you see now may not be the same terms as when you fly. For what it’s worth, most contract revisions are fairly minor, but it’s still worth noting that they can change.

What’s in the contract of carriage?

Here’s what you’ll find in a typical contract. Bear in mind that this can change without notice.

✓ Changes in fares and schedules. If your fare drops, most contracts will tell you that you can’t count on a refund. At best, you’ll probably get a ticket credit — and only after deducting the airline’s change fee. If your flight’s delayed because of weather or Air Traffic Control, an airline will do its best to get you out on the next one. If your plane can’t take off because of a mechanical problem, it might pick up your meal and hotel expenses. Any time you experience a mechanical delay that lasts longer than two hours, it’s best to consult your contract to figure out your rights. Your airline might not volunteer this information.

✓ Overbooking. When there are too many passengers and not enough seats, an airline will ask for volunteers to take the next flight. Those passengers are first offered a flight voucher in exchange for offering to fly later. Beware of vouchers. They can come with significant restrictions, including which flights you can redeem them for and a time limit. They will almost certainly expire within a year. Also, a voucher can be a bad deal unless you regularly fly alone. If you fly with a friend or spouse, you’ll have to book a ticket on the airline on which you have a voucher, which may be more expensive. What if no one volunteers to give up their seat during an oversale? The airline selects passengers — often based on status and check-in time — and is required to pay that person cash compensation in accordance with federal regulations.

✓ Baggage. While the government sets the limit on the kind of compensation a passenger can expect to receive for lost luggage, the fact is, your airline does not want to be responsible for your checked luggage in any way. Pay attention to the long list of liability exceptions, which include electronics, jewelry, strollers and other valuables. Even if you can prove those items were pilfered, the airline won’t cover them when they’re misplaced or lost. Just as you wouldn’t leave valuables lying around in a hotel room, don’t put them in your luggage. If the airline runs out of space before you board, make sure to take the time to remove valuable items before gate checking.

✓ Minimum check-in times. If you don’t check in an hour before your flight, you could lose your seat. At the very least, your checked baggage may not be accepted. To facilitate an on-time take-off, aircraft doors are usually closed 10 minutes in advance of the scheduled departure. Be sure to check the minimum check-in time for your specific airport on your airline’s website the day before, some smaller airports may have longer minimum check-in times than you would expect.

✓ Unaccompanied minors. An “unaccompanied minor” (UM) fee is charged for young children flying alone. Normally, airlines won’t accept a child younger than 5 flying alone, and some airlines don’t accept children on complicated or multistop itineraries. The UM fee is typically required of any passenger younger than 12, but it varies. When you pay this fee, the flight attendants will be made aware that your child is traveling alone, and the airline will escort your child during any connections. This may include having them in a UM club during any stopovers.

✓ Refunds. If your flight is canceled, you can get a full refund. If your plans change, you’ll probably get a ticket credit. If you miss your flight, you lose everything, unless an airline is sympathetic, such as if you get a flat tire on a rental car. Don’t bet on it, though.

✓ Delays and cancellations. If it’s the airline’s fault that your flight is delayed or canceled, you have more rights than if it’s an event beyond the airline’s control, often called a Force Majeure event. Those rights rarely extend beyond a meal, a hotel room, and a seat on the next flight out — if there’s room.

✓ Authority to change contract. The airline can change the contract at any time, for any reason, and it doesn’t really have to tell you.

What does “nonrefundable” mean?

Nonrefundable means no refunds — usually. Airlines will always refund a nonrefundable ticket if you die before your flight, sending the money to your next of kin. (Real helpful, I know.) They’ll refund a ticket if your flight’s canceled. Sometimes they’ll refund your ticket or waive their change fee if a close relative dies (as long as you can show a death certificate), or (even more rarely) they’ll offer a refund if you fall ill and can’t make the flight.

There’s a good reason why airline tickets are nonrefundable. Every empty seat is a missed opportunity to make money, and most passengers understand that. An airline doesn’t get paid when a seat flies empty. But at the same time, airlines delay or cancel flights for all kinds of reasons, including the weather, acts of God, crew issues, and mechanical problems — often with few or no penalties. Shouldn’t the airlines show a little flexibility from time to time?

In the years immediately after airline deregulation, many airlines would allow you to talk your way into almost anything — including, sometimes, a full refund for a nonrefundable ticket.

Airlines weren’t just being Mr. Nice Guy; they were being Mr. Pushover, and it was costing them real money. After 9/11, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Perhaps too far in the other direction — resulting in policies despised by both airline employees and passengers, including one called “No Waivers, No Favors” that forced employees to stick to the published rules, no matter how onerous those rules were.

Airlines softened their rules a little after their profits returned, but they’re still likely stick to their post-9/11 playbook today, unless you happen to be one of their favorite elite-level customers.

What is codesharing, and why should I care about it?

Codesharing is an agreement that allows two or more airlines to “share” a flight. So between New York and London, you can have a British Airways flight operating a British Airways aircraft, but it’s also listed as an American Airlines flight, “operated” by British Airways. Codesharing can be confusing to passengers, allowing airlines to shirk their customer-service responsibilities — which is why you need to know about it.

✓ Always pay attention to the flight details. The Transportation Department requires that every codesharing flight be disclosed at the time you buy it. So, look for “Airline X operated by Airline Y” when you’re making your reservation. Mostly, these are “Express” airlines operating shorter flights for a larger airline, but for long-haul international trips, it’s not uncommon to see three different airlines listed under one ticket.

✓ Most of the time, the rules of the first carrier apply to the entire flight. Airlines have different requirements for luggage, refunds, and miles, but remember: the rules of the first airline, which is known as the “operating” carrier, should apply to your entire flight. The government holds airlines to these agreements, so if you’re hit with a luggage fee on a codeshare flight, and the airline won’t refund the fee after you ask, then let the Transportation Department know about it.

✓ If something goes wrong, ask the operating carrier for help first. The airline that sold you the ticket should take responsibility when something goes wrong, even if the problem is on the second airline, sometimes also called the “marketing” carrier.

✓ When you have a question far from home. If your ticket covers multiple airlines, or you don’t know which airline is operating your flight, and you’ve arrived in a foreign airport, just ask an airline employee for assistance. Most airports have multilingual help desks, and they are usually well versed in airline issues. Alternatively, ask your hotel concierge to call the airline, if needed. Make sure you know how early to check in if you’re far from home. It’s best to write that time on your itinerary before you even leave home.

✓ Don’t get caught in the middle. Codeshare alliances allow for an infinite game of finger-pointing between the operating and marketing carriers. Don’t put up with it. Contact the Transportation Department, which will help sort things out. After all, airlines rely on the government for approval to jointly operate these flights, which can decrease competition. They don’t want to run afoul of regulators.

AFTER YOUR FLIGHT

Where am I likely to run into trouble when I fly?

Here are the topics air travelers complain about the most, according the U.S. Department of Transportation:

1. Flight problems
2. Cancellations
3. Delays
4. Missed connections
5. Baggage
6. Reservations/tickets/boarding
7. Customer service
8. Refunds
9. Disability
10. Fares

Nice list. Can you offer any more specific advice?

Sure. Truth is, a category like “flight problems” can be a little vague. From the perspective of someone who has mediated thousands of air travel complaints, most passengers run into trouble with the rules, which are ever-changing, and usually not in the passenger’s favor. Keeping abreast of these restrictions is becoming increasingly difficult. When someone runs afoul of one of them, they often don’t even know if they have any recourse. Often, sadly, they don’t. So, I’ll give it to you straight: What you don’t know can hurt you.

How could I have avoided this in the first place?

By doing your homework. Here are a few things you should definitely read before you fly.

✓ The fare restrictions on your ticket, which is also called the ticket tariff.

✓ Your airline’s contract of carriage.

✓ The airline’s customer commitment or customer service commitment, which is a non-binding pledge to maintain minimum service standards. It’s also on your airline’s website.

✓ The actual laws governing air travel are listed in section 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. But you can find a nice summary in a pamphlet called Fly-Rights published by the federal government.

Who should I contact when I have a problem?

Ideally, you won’t experience any trouble with your flight. Roughly 75 percent of all flights are on time. Your plane will probably leave as scheduled, and you’ll almost certainly arrive safely. You can find your flight’s on-time record online, using a search tool like FlightStats. But if you experience a problem, your first step should be to contact the airline right then and there. Don’t wait.

For example, say you have a problem with your in-flight entertainment system; the best time to speak up is now. A flight attendant may be able to reseat you, or offer you a drink voucher to make up for the trouble. That’s far more meaningful than holding in the anger the entire flight and then sending an angry missive to the airline — an email that will likely be replied to with a form response and a meaningless certificate that must be used on a future flight.

Contact the carrier directly as soon as possible if you have a problem. If you don’t receive a satisfactory response, try one of the executive contacts I list on my site.

Many air travelers get in touch with me because they have a problem with an airline rule, specifically one of the rules relating to ticket changes or fares. That’s also a common complaint to the government.

Airlines sometimes waive their rules during special circumstances. For example, if there’s a major winter storm approaching that affects their flight operations, they’ll relax their change fee and allow you to reschedule your flight. But it doesn’t necessarily go both ways. If you can’t make a flight because of a natural disaster in your area that affected a small number of people, an airline probably won’t extend the same courtesy.

The U.S. Department of Transportation oversees domestic airlines. You can send a complaint to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The best way to get in touch with DOT is in writing, through its website.

The DOT doesn’t mediate disputes, at least not officially, but if you can show that an airline violated its own contract or federal law, then it will contact the carrier on your behalf. Nothing makes an airline move faster than an email ending in dot.gov. Even if it turns out that the airline was following the law, it will get you a fast response.

How do I get DOT to review my case?

✓ Put your complaint in writing. Even though you can call DOT, you will have more success creating a paper trail, and it will be easier to track.

✓ Keep it brief.

✓ Find the exact rule or regulation that has been violated. If possible, point to a previous DOT decision or advisory that sets a precedent.

✓ Be polite. Like all government agencies, the Aviation Consumer Protection Division is stretched to the limit. It can’t take every case. Your good manners will set you apart from the other, sometimes shrill, complaints received by the agency.

How do I persuade the airline to review my case?

Airlines operate call centers with thousands of employees whose job it is to quickly answer your questions. About half the customer queries come by phone, and the rest are by email, snail mail, or some form of social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Unless you’re in a situation that requires an immediate, real-time resolution — for example, your flight’s been canceled and you need to get rebooked — I’d recommend sending something to the airline in writing.

Why? Because it creates a “paper trail” that can be saved if necessary. This will show the airline that you’ve gone through all the right channels to get this resolved, in the event that you need to appeal to a supervisor. While it’s true that customer-service calls are logged and sometimes recorded, you’re not going to have access to those files, which puts you at a serious disadvantage when you’re trying to fix something.

1. Always start at the front door. Send a short, polite email to the airline through its website. Every airline offers a “contact us” section. It may seem silly, but you’ll see why this is important in a minute. Offer a brief description of your problem and a desired resolution. Don’t forget to include your name, flight dates, and record locator, the alphanumeric code associated with your reservation

2. Offer a concise, reasoned rebuttal. Most airline systems create a tracking number based on the query. This guarantees that no customer enquiries slip through the cracks. Be sure to include your case number in every reply. If the airline sends you a scripted “no” response after the autoresponder acknowledging your initial complaint, you’ll want to follow up with a polite rebuttal. Include any relevant documentation, such as a doctor’s note, death certificate, or a photo of damaged luggage (with a date stamp).

3. Appeal to a higher authority, if necessary. The names, numbers, and email addresses of the customer service VPs are listed here. While it’s rare for them to become personally involved in a case, your well-reasoned appeal will ensure that a senior customer-service employee will review your request.

What works? Generally, complaints that are tight and polite get the fastest resolutions. If you include all of your specifics and suggest a reasonable resolution, chances are you’ll never have to write an appeal. If you send a lengthy, emotional email, and don’t suggest a resolution, or if you make an unreasonable demand, like “two first-class tickets anywhere your airline flies” or to have a flight attendant fired for being rude to you, your complaint will likely end in frustration.

Can I sue an airline?

Yes and no. Because of a federal preemption provision to the Federal Aviation Act, you must sue an airline in federal court in most cases. But for smaller complaints, you can take an airline to small claims court, where you can represent yourself, and where the odds are fairly good that an airline won’t bother to send a representative, allowing you to win by default.

Which airline rules are negotiable?

On one level, every rule the airline sets can be changed — if you’re an airline, but some are more negotiable than others.

✓ I missed a flight. Now they want me to pay for a new ticket. Most airlines have an informal policy called the “flat tire” rule. It means that if you get stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, and miss your plane, the airline will put you on the next available flight at no extra charge. Note: they are well within their rights to charge you for a new ticket, since technically you’re a “no-show,” so be polite when invoking this rule.

✓ The name on my ticket is misspelled. Airlines claim they “can’t” change the name on your ticket for security reasons. That’s more or less true 24 hours before departure, when all passenger lists are scanned by the Department of Homeland Security for terror risk, but before then, the real reason is that they are protecting their revenues; they don’t want to transfer the name on a ticket to someone else, and lose the money they would have pocketed for a new ticket. As long as the change is minor — two or fewer letters — a misspelling should be fixed at no charge. Remember that, by law, airlines must allow cancellations at no charge within 24 hours of ticket purchase. If you booked the wrong name just after hitting “buy” – then cancel it immediately by calling the airline.

✓ You’re stuck with a “nuisance” fee. Airlines have added a series of fees that passengers find highly annoying. These include fees for advance seat reservations, for special seat assignments in economy class, or for the first piece of luggage. These can be negotiated. For example, you can easily avoid the luggage fee by bringing your bag to the gate and carrying it on the plane or, if there’s no room in the overhead bins, getting a complimentary gate check. (A better solution, however, would be to pack light.)

Which airline rules are non-negotiable?

Airlines would like you to believe all of their rules are strict, and some actually are.

✓ You want to change the date on a ticket. Almost every airline will hit you with a change fee plus a fare differential if you change your travel plans. Waiving that is next to impossible.

✓ You miss your flight because you had the wrong dates or forgot to check. Once the plane takes off, and you’re classified a “no show,” the best you can hope for is a refund of your government fees and taxes.

✓ Your flight was delayed and you missed a day of your vacation or work. If you want your airline to compensate you for a missing day of vacation or work, or to pay for a hotel stay that you missed, forget it. The airline’s automatic answer is: no.

✓ Your miles expired. Airline miles are a highly perishable commodity. When they’re gone, you can’t usually get them back. Sometimes, an airline will let you pay a fee to reactivate the miles, but it’s rare. Understand your mile expiration dates, which vary from 12 months for some airlines to “never” for others. Usually the expiration date starts over every time there is activity on your account, so using 2,000 miles to subscribe to a magazine could give you another year to use the rest of your miles.

How long should I wait for a response?

Airlines offer an immediate response if you email through a website, but it’s nothing more than a polite autoresponder with a tracking number. For simple requests, expect to hear back within seven business days. For more involved queries, a four- to six-week timeframe is fairly standard.

One of the most common questions I get involves refunds. An airline may take its time getting your money back to you. Wait at least two credit card billing cycles before panicking. I’ve had cases that took one or even two years.

If you’re asking for a refund of a package vacation tour, it will go through your travel agent or tour operator. If that’s the case, then the refund may take even longer.

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