Making a plethora of complaints often leads to this response — crickets


That’s the sound you hear of Air India’s response to Janette Neff’s long list of complaints.

Neff, an elderly passenger, experienced several problems on a flight from San Francisco to Delhi. Unfortunately, she had too many issues, and she didn’t document them during the flight. Had she done so, Air India might have responded to her request for compensation with some gesture of goodwill.

But the airline ignored her request — probably because it contained too many complaints. Its agents may not have finished reading it before they decided to reject it. Her story is a reminder to consumers to keep customer service complaints simple and concise.

On the outbound flight, which was 16 hours long, 45 seats on the plane did not have working media systems, overhead lights, air vents or call buttons.

“For hours on end I could not even read,” says Neff. “I had to sit in the dark as I can’t sleep on planes. The flight attendant told us they had not worked on an earlier flight and weren’t repaired. It was a sold out flight, so no seat change [was possible]. It was very hot.”

For the next two weeks, Neff called and emailed Air India’s customer service, seeking compensation or a free seat upgrade for her return flight. But on the day of the return flight, two supervisors rejected her request, telling her that the only way she could get an upgrade was to pay for it.

On the return flight, Neff again found herself in a seat with a broken media system and a malfunctioning call button. Two of Neff’s fellow passengers tried to make them work but had no luck. Unfortunately, the plane’s flight attendant was unhelpful, insisting that the media system and call button worked although three passengers had not succeeded at getting them to function properly.

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A supervisor told Neff that she could not put her purse under the seat in front of her as “no airline allowed” this, but that “everything had to go in the overhead bins.” And the plane sat on the runway for three hours in addition to the flight time.

After the flight, Neff wrote to Air India seeking full reimbursement for her ticket. Air India responded by asking for her ticket number. Then an Air India agent wrote the following to Neff:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for contacting Air India

With reference to your e-mail, we certainly understand your situation and hence we have processed your request/concern to the relevant department. We request you to kindly wait for some time for an appropriate reply.

Neff then replied:

I will speak to my attorney in San Francisco and will post my info on Facebook, I am a senior and that long trip was intolerable. A complimentary ticket is not an option. plesse [sic] respond immediately.

(Note: Boldface is per original communication from Neff to Air India.)

Neff waited, but no reply, “appropriate” or otherwise, ever came.

She might have escalated her complaints to executives of Air India using our contact information, but she contacted our advocates instead.

Unfortunately for Neff, while functioning media systems, call buttons, and the right to place items under the seat in front of you are standard amenities on nearly all flights, there is no language in Air India’s conditions of carriage or elsewhere on its site guaranteeing that its passengers are entitled to any of them.

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And threatening a company you are asking for help with legal action or social media posts, especially in boldface (like all caps, an online equivalent of shouting) is never an appropriate way to ask for help.

Although our advocates reached out to Air India on Neff’s behalf, nobody at Air India responded to us either.

So we are unable to do more for Neff. We are sharing her story as a warning to customers: Limit your complaints to a few core issues rather than a long list, and don’t shout or make threats. Otherwise, you are unlikely to resolve your case any more successfully than Neff did. Your company may treat your problem as a Case Dismissed, just as Air India — and our advocates — have done with Neff’s.

Should Air India have upgraded Janette Neff on her return flight?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Rebecca

    Certainly Ms. Neff is able to remember entertaining oneself on a flight before there was such a thing as a media system? I do and I’m 35, and I’m really hoping I’m not a senior.

  • Lindabator

    true, but as the light did not work on the flight, reading was also out, as the cabin would have been darkened (at least for an extended period of time) on an international (16 hour) flight. But once she got off the flight, she should have spoken to the gate agent to see if they could do anything for her return, even if it was to make a notation for a free upgrade if available upon the travel date

  • sirwired

    Well, she did say that the light didn’t work either, so she couldn’t read, which is the traditional past-time before all this gadgetry. (I have a Kindle Paperwhite, but we can hardly fault a passenger for not owning one.)

  • sirwired

    She had a reasonable complaint (if a little laundry-listy), but once you pull the lawyer card, BAM! you are getting precisely nowhere.

  • BubbaJoe123

    She had a legitimate complaint, and Air India should have compensated her (maybe not with an upgrade on the return, but with something).

    She complained (justifiably), but her response to their initial response made two errors:

    1. Said that a complimentary ticket wouldn’t be an option. Translation: I’m never going to India again, so there’s no revenue risk to ignoring me.
    2. Said she’d consult her lawyer. When do you that, companies’ automatic response is “you go ahead and do that; any future contact should be directed to our lawyers.”

  • Rebecca

    I understand the light not working on the way there was irritating. And I agree, calmly and politely addressing it at the time would be reasonable. But her attitude rubbed me the wrong way, enough that a snide comment seemed in order.

  • Alan Gore

    Always have backup reading available for times like this. On a plane, nothing beats a tablet full of Kindle books.

  • Jeff W.

    I agree, but I am going to guess that the in-flight entertainment was going to be the primary source of entertainment and a paper book/magazine was the backup plan.

  • gpx21dlr

    I haven’t taken a international flight since 1980 so I’m still kinda a newbie. Now I’ll make sure I have a small fan, tape/kindle/tablet player and a recharge unit. Oh, and also a small reading light. Oh, a neck pillow, water, sleeping pills, blanket, slippers, etc., etc., and etc. LOL.

  • MarkKelling

    It was the one statement made by the OP that caused the lack of further response: “I will speak to my attorney …”
    Her complaints were all valid and I don’t see them being a laundry list.

  • BubbaJoe123

    This assumes you have one of the Kindle models with a backlight. Not all of them have it.

  • RightNow9435

    Especially the one about not being allowed to put her purse under the seat in front.

  • Koholaz

    Since when is a purse not allowed under the seat? No airline allows this? Huh? I agree that she did not handle it well. But if I paid for a ticket on a 16 hour flight and I had to sit in the dark and twiddle my thumbs for the whole time I’d be pretty steamed as well. Not everyone owns a Kindle.

  • Alan Gore

    I don’t either. I use an iPad.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Again, assumes you have an iPad.

  • pauletteb

    I’ve always placed my purse/personal item under the seat in front of me. Placing such items in the overhead bins is an invitation to pilferage, especially on a long flight where you might doze off or even a short flight if the only bin available is behind your seat.

  • Annie M

    She should have asked for a partial refund instead of asking for a free upgrade. They might have responded to that. The airlines aren’t going to move someone to a $3,000 business class seat just because their media systems didn’t work nor will they give her a full refund when they did what they were obligated to do – get her from point a to point b.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Depends on which seat, some seats on some carriers don’t allow underseat storage.

  • RightNow9435

    Especially if all my normal under-seat items had to be stowed overheard. That seems very unusual to me. Not to mention, it’s one thing to have darkness/no media/etc during a ORD to EWR flight, quite another to be unable to do much of anything for 16 hours.

  • Bill___A

    For a time, on 30% of my overseas flights, the in flight entertainment didn’t work. That didn’t really please me, but I now carry an ipad with me. I have realize they don’t cancel a flight when the IFE doesn’t work. Not sure why all the other lights didn’t work on this flight, but undoubtedly they decided people might perhaps rather fly without the lights rather than wait another day or so to fly.. However, some polite dialogue asking them to “see what they can do” would probably get one further than threats which would go nowhere. A good rule of thumb is to be able to entertain yourself on a plane….I hope she knows to fly with an LED reading light if she is 100% dependent upon books. Of course, all of these things should work on an airplane, but sometimes they don’t and we aren’t going to get thousands of dollars back over it.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Clearly, there needs to be space for other things under the seat as in the attached picture.

  • Michael__K

    But the airline ignored her request — probably because it contained too many complaints.

    If they did that then they violated their own contract and DOT regulations. From their Customer Service Plan:

    10. Ensure responsiveness to customer complaints
    Information about where to direct your written complaint is on our website under “Contact Us”, and is available upon request at the airports we serve. We will acknowledge written complaints within 30 days of receipt and we will send a substantive response within 60 days of receiving your written complaint.

    They don’t have to provide the response you want but if they didn’t provide a substantive response within 60 days at all then that is a problem and warrants a passenger complaint to the US Dept of Transportation.

  • Michael__K

    Except DOT regulations require the airline to provide a substantive response to the complaining passenger within 60 days and there is no exception for passengers who pull the lawyer card.

  • sirwired

    Meh; the aggregate risk of the DOT actually doing anything about it is a lot lower than the cost of having to route everybody who issues legal threats through the legal dept.

  • michael anthony

    Yes, perhaps Neff was her own worst enemy. OR, and just as possible, AIR INDIA just doesn’t care. The investigatory arm of aviation in India is woefully inadequate. There are stories after stories in local press there of “too bad” to passenger complaints, especially into too crowded planes and planes with non functioning items, even seats. A few years ago the biggest scandal was them finding numerous pilots from multiple carriers without valid licenses.

    When your own government doesn’t seem to care, what incentive does the carrier have to care about an elderly tourist?

  • Michael__K

    Laws are made to be broken, huh?

  • sirwired

    If your choice is between the distant and dim prospect of government action or the rather more immediate legal costs to deal with a customer who has (intentionally or not) made even responding to their complaint needlessly difficult and expensive, it can be a perfectly rational choice to choose the former. (And regulators are human, they can tell when a customer is making a nuisance of themselves as much as the next person. I would call legal threats in response to “Give us some time to research” as a nuisance.)

    It’s not like she would appreciate the response, even if Air India were to send one; I doubt it would consist of more than “We will not be providing you with any compensation for your trip. Signed, Air India.”

  • Michael__K

    So regulators are made to ignore the law? [A ‘substantive response’ would require a little bit more elaboration than your example]

  • sirwired

    Yes, police, regulators, judges, and prosecutors routinely ignore lawbreakers; it’s referred to as “prosecutorial discretion” and without it, the legal system would be a clogged and hopeless mess, and the jails wouldn’t be big enough to contain all the lawbreakers.

    You ever access a website or install a program before reading the Terms and Conditions, in their eye-straining entirety, despite you clicking a box that said you did? You just willfully committed a felony (the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) and can be sent to prison for up to five years. Ever exceed the speed limit by even 1 MPH while coasting downhill? Hope you have some time to kill and an open wallet for your ticket. Did your dog pee on a neighbor’s lawn while you were out for a walk? Trespassing. Did it pee on a fire hydrant? Defacing public property. Throw away a bloody band-aid in the kitchen trash? Improper disposal of medical waste. Bring in a bottle of store-brand Windex to clean off the dry erase board at work? Hope you also brought in a copy of the Material Safety Data sheet, and stored it in the proper place, or you just violated OSHA regulations. Kids have a lemonade stand? Health code violation. School raffle? Gambling laws. Break a CFL and not call for decontamination of the area? Environmental laws. Napkin blow away during a picnic? Littering. Have a tree cut down without examining the entire thing for a bird nest? Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You are an immigrant and you exceeded the speed limit twenty years ago in your home country and you failed to mention this when naturalizing? Citizenship revocation. (Okay, probably not, but a Fed just tried to make that exact argument with a straight face in front of the Supreme Court recently, and the justices were not impressed.)

    Deciding that an airline won’t be penalized for circular-filing a complaint from a customer that went from “Please give us some time to research your flight” to “I’m gonna call my lawyer, and don’t even think of just giving me a ticket credit.” would be a perfectly reasonable exercise of discretion.

    Lastly, “substantive” doesn’t mean “long.”

  • Michael__K

    This isn’t about prosecution or jail.

    If the passenger complains to the DOT, the carrier will be bound to share its substantive response with the DOT, and the DOT will be bound to share that response with the customer. Words have meaning and while the response can be short, “Our Answer is No” or “We have no answer because you played the lawyer card” are not substantive responses addressing the complaint.

    BTW, the DOT encourages passengers to get their own legal advice because the DOT does not have the authority to force an airline to compensate a particular customer.

    And if the airline is genuinely afraid the passenger plans to involve her lawyer, then brazenly violating a simple straightforward DOT regulation — as well as its own written contract — might not be the wisest course.

  • sirwired

    The DOT would be responsible for enforcing this particular rule about requiring a response and all I’m saying is that yes, they would be likely to ignore this particular violation. (There are very few government rules that can be enforced by an individual.) I suppose during a court case one could bring it up, but what would the result be other than a compelled response?

    And why would “Our answer is no” not be a substantive response? She had a laundry list of quality-related things she’s unsatisfied with, but those don’t require any detail in response because they have no obligation to provide a working seatback entertainment system or a functioning reading light or eyeball vent. Her actual request is for compensation, and “you are getting nothing” would be a complete response to that. If she had alleged safety problems, refund issues, or something to do with their contracted commitment then they would need to address those.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Side note: thank you for using plethora correctly! More often than not, people think it just means “a lot,” rather than “way too many.”

  • Michael__K

    You misrepresent what prosecutorial discretion is about. Of course prosecutors have wide discretion on how they prioritize limited enforcement budgets and how they negotiate settlements. Even then, there are generally written guidelines they are expected to follow.

    But there is no prosecutor here and this is not about prosecution at all. This is a routine black & white process rule.

    DOT gets 50+ complaints every day and those complaints follow a very specific process prescribed by law. Carrier responses are public record and shared with the customer. The idea that you believe the carrier’s lawyers would try to establish a (probably illegal) confidential back-channel with the DOT to seek permission to break the black and white process rules, to avoid providing a substantive response to mundane customer service complaint… because responding as required would be too ‘expensive’….. is bizarre….

    And of course a substantive response must address the substance of the complaint. Duh.

  • sirwired

    I think we’ve been talking past each other. I said nothing about back-channel communications, illegal or otherwise. I have no idea where you got that. Yes, I suppose if she were to make a formal complaint to the DOT, that might extract the requested response from the airline. But that is as far as it would go. When I was referring to prosecutorial discretion, I was referring to the fact that the DOT would be rather unlikely to do anything else, like even reprimand the airline for not responding in time, much less issue a fine. (Though if Air India were to even ignore the a letter from the DOT about this complaint, I’m not sure they would force the issue; regulatory agencies aren’t required to carry through every regulatory violation to conclusion. They have bigger fish to fry than chasing after Air India to force them to formally tell a passenger she’s not getting any money from them.)

    The “substance” of the complaint is a request for compensation. All that requires is “You aren’t getting any compensation.” The actual contents of her laundry list are irrelevant, since none of them have anything to do with the airline’s contractual obligations to her. The nitty-gritty details require no more of a response than if she said didn’t like the color of the carpet, or thought the cabin announcements were too loud.

  • Michael__K

    Ok, so without back-channel discussions, we agree that if the carrier doesn’t respond as required, the DOT won’t even know why (not that there is any legitimate excuse regardless) which won’t look good. All to avoid giving the customer — who did nothing but disclose that she intended to follow the DOT’s published advice to get her own private legal advice — a response to a very mundane complaint?

    The complaint was about overhead lights and call buttons and seatback entertainment. The substantive response needs to address that. Pretty mundane stuff to willfully break DOT regulations over.

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