First, 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.
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.
There are a few important sources for your rights against United Airlines (or any other airline):
The tariff of most airlines can be found online, as part of the airline’s website. It contains 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 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.
Under the Montreal Convention, the airline is liable for damage to baggage, unless it can prove that the item was already defective or unsuitable for transport (Article 17(2)), and liable for damage incurred due to delay of baggage or the passenger, unless the airline can prove that its agents took all possible steps to avoid the delay (Article 19).
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 wilful 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).
An important note regarding baggage-related claims: notify the airline promptly
If your complaint is about damage or delay of baggage, you must notify the airline about your claim immediately, and at the latest, for international tickets, within:
For domestic tickets, you should consult the airline’s tariff. 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.
You must send written notice in a way that 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.
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 that 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.
Be aware that may need to take the airline to small claims court before you see a serious offer to settle. Many former passengers have successfully gone this route, e.g., just looking at the list of claims in San Francisco. The Sue the Airlines site offers additional background information and advice regarding the legal route.
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.
The Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) of the U.S. Department of Transportation operates a complaint handling system for consumers who experience air travel service problems.
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