The following offer some guidance in how to make sure that United takes your complaint seriously, and that you obtain the compensation you are owed.
STEP 1 - Get informed about your rights »
There are a few important sources for your rights against United Airlines (or any other airline):
the contract of carriage ("tariff"), which lists the airline’s obligations to you when something goes wrong. You should read this document, searching for relevant keywords such as "liability," "delay,” and "damage.”. The tariff of most airlines can be found online, as part of the airline’s website. United's is available here
in the case of international tickets, the Montreal Convention is an international treaty governing the rights of passengers, which has the force of law in the United States, Canada, and many other countries. It applies to all legs of tickets between countries that have adopted the Convention as well as international round trip tickets starting and ending in such a country.
In 2009, the maximum liability under the Montreal Convention was increased to 4,694 Special Drawing Rights (SDR, which is an international currency) for damage caused by delay to passengers (Article 22(1)) and 1,131 SDR for loss, delay, or damage to baggage (Article 22(2))
However, if the passenger can prove that the damages were caused by willful misconduct of the airline, no liability limit applies (Article 22(5)). One SDR is currently equivalent to $1.74.
The airline cannot set a liability limit in its tariff that is lower than what the Montreal Convention says (Article 26).
in the case of domestic tickets, that is, flights within or departing from the US, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations provides additional rights to passengers
Additional information is available on the following topics:
You must send written notice within 24 hours after arrival of the flight on which the baggage was or was to be transported. Make sure that this notice provides proof of delivery (email, fax, or registered letter). Failure to give notice within these deadlines may disqualify your claim.
Your initial notice can be brief, simply stating your name, your booking reference, the itinerary on which the incident occurred, your baggage tag number, and the baggage irregularity report (reference number), if you were assigned one by the airline. Later on, you can provide further details, such as a list of expenses incurred or a declaration of the contents of your baggage.
Don't wait for the airline to give you "permission" to replace any items you need while awaiting the late arrival of your baggage. Reasonable expenses incurred for purchases or rental of necessary replacement items should be reimbursed by the airline, and if not, awarded by a small claims court.
if your bag does not arrive within 21 days, it is considered to be lost, and you can seek compensation for replacement of the entire contents
Regulation 14 CFR 254.4 ensures that airlines cannot limit liability for loss, delay, or damage of baggage to less than $3400 per passenger
as stipulated under Article 31 of the Montreal Convention you must notify the airline about your claim immediately, and at the latest, within 7 days from receipt of your damaged bag or 21 days from delivery for delayed baggage
the airline is liable for damage incurred due to delay of baggage, unless the airline can prove that its agents took all possible steps to avoid the delay (Article 19 of the Montreal Convention).
the liability of the airline for destruction, loss, damage, or delay of baggage is limited to 1000 Special Drawing Rights or approximately $1390 USD per passenger (Article 22 of the Montreal Convention).
United will try to get passengers to their destination on its own flights, but at the passenger's request, United is obligated to put the passenger on a competitor's flight (Rule 24 E.2.a (ii) of United's tariff)
if the flight delay is expected to exceed four hours between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. local time, United will provide one night's lodging, or a maximum allowance for one night's lodging (Rule 24 F.1 of United's tariff)
United will provide snacks and/or meal vouchers in the event of a delay caused by United that extends beyond normal meal hours or whenever lodging is furnished (Rule 24 F.2 of United's tariff)
Note that United will often try to invoke "force majeure", such as blaming the weather, to avoid its obligations above: passengers are strongly advised to verify that United isn't lying
Regulation 14 CFR 259.5 requires the airline to refund the cost of tickets and optional services within 20 days following receipt of a refund request due to a flight cancellation
Unfortunately, airlines are not required to offer any other compensation to passengers whose U.S. domestic flights are delayed or canceled, other than those items noted under "General", above.
the airline is liable for damage incurred due to delay of the passenger, unless the airline can prove that its agents took all possible steps to avoid the delay (Article 19 of the Montreal Convention)
the liability of the airline for damage caused by delay of passengers is limited to 4150 Special Drawing Rights or approximately $5770 USD per passenger (Article 22 of the Montreal Convention).
Despite these stated policies, obtaining refunds from United can be much like pulling teeth.
You'll likely have a much easier time recovering overcharges or refunds due by disputing the amounts through your credit card company, assuming that's how you paid for the services.
Make sure to provide your credit card company with all the details of your attempts to communicate with the airline.
Don't expect United Airlines to respect your rights. As Daniel Bernstein notes in his insightful analysis, it doesn't make economic sense for United to obey the laws. United assumes that most passengers won't go to the trouble of making a written demand for payment, and following up on it (e.g., through small claims action or notifying their attorney-general). This way, United can can save a lot of money by ignoring its legal obligations.
A good letter of complaint is written in such a way that it can be put before a judge at a later stage of the dispute. Stick to the bare facts, remove all expressions of emotion, and look at the events from a distance, as if they happened to someone else, a stranger.
If you find it helpful, think of your letter as the Captain’s log from Star Trek. What was the date of your flight? What was the flight’s number and destination? What was your ticket number? What went wrong?
Focus on what facts are needed to demonstrate your legal right for what you are seeking. For example, if you were bumped, state that you had a confirmed reservation, that you had all necessary travel documents, and that you presented yourself on time for check-in and boarding, but you were nevertheless denied transportation.
Do not talk about how you are a long-time loyal customer and do not raise moral arguments. The employee reading your letter does not care that you were upset.
Be specific about what you want the airline to do. If you demand financial compensation, state the amount. Passengers who simply ask for “adequate compensation” may find the airline’s idea of “adequate” quite different from their own. Airlines are quick to issue form letter apologies, and discounts toward future travel, hoping that you will fly with them again despite how you were mistreated; however, getting them to pay what you are owed may be a tough battle.
Quote the specific rules of the tariff and of the Montreal Convention or U.S. CFR, if they are applicable to your complaint.
Explain the financial consequences you suffered as a result of the airline’s actions or its failure to fulfil its contractual obligations. If your bags were delayed, what expenses did you incur as a result (e.g., buying clothes or renting golf clubs for a big game)? If your flight was delayed, did you need to purchase meals, forfeit a deposit for a night at a hotel, or lose wages?
If you incurred more than a few expenses, it may be a good idea to include a table organizing them logically. Include copies (but not originals) of any relevant receipts that you may have; however, compensation cannot be denied just because you do not have receipts, as long as you have a good explanation, the expenses claimed are reasonable, and you provide a supporting declaration.
The best practice is to address the letter to the airline’s legal department. Airlines’ customer service departments tend to issue scripted replies, which may contain form-letter apologies, but are unlikely to give serious consideration to your complaint. Letters sent to the CEO are also typically answered by customer service.
Most airlines do not like to pay up, no matter how strong your case is. The airline’s response to your complaint may contain phrases such as “we are unable to offer you compensation” or “we consider this matter closed”. Do not be deterred.
Sending your complaint to the U.S. Attorneys General in Illinois and Texas (where United Airlines maintains its headquarters) has helped some passengers as well.
If it is extreme, get a lawyer
If your complaint is about something extremely serious, such as injury or death of a passenger, or false arrest at the request of airline employees, seek advice from a legal professional, and do not try to deal with it yourself.
Consumers with concerns about
airline safety or security can call the Federal Aviation Administration toll-free at 1-866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322) or the Transportation Security Administration toll-free at 1-866-289-9673.
Make audio recordings of your interactions with United personnel. This is legal and the recordings are usually admissible in court. Don't forget, when you call the airline by telephone, they typically record the conversation at their end! Make sure you get the names of anyone with whom you speak. If you can't record the interaction, take detailed notes. Ask the airline representatives to put whatever they tell you in writing. If they refuse, type up your notes and send them by email as a written record.
If you purchased your ticket with a credit card and feel that United didn't deliver the contractually agreed upon service, dispute the charge with your credit card company.
Credit to Gábor Lukács, a Halifax mathematician and air passenger rights advocate, for much of the content in this guide, which appeared originally on the CBC Marketplace blog. Follow Gábor on Twitter: @AirPassRightsCA