Five things your airline should never say

What's an airline customer service instructor?

Leslie O’Flahavan looks more like an English teacher than an airline employee. Everything about her is no-nonsense, from her curly black hair, to her Nordstrom business-casual attire, to her carefully chosen words.

Maybe that’s because she spent nearly a decade as a high school educator. But she has moved on to a different kind of teaching: tutoring airlines on how to use the right words to respond to passenger comments and complaints.

O’Flahavan is a customer service writing expert who runs a boutique business called E-Write, based in Silver Spring, Md., which helps travel companies recast their letter template libraries into shorter, easier to read and “modern-sounding” emails. Her clients have included Virgin America, Air Canada and several other major domestic carriers.

What is an airline customer service writing expert?

“The airlines I work with hire me to help make their correspondence more natural and responsive,” she explains. “They already care about better quality communication with customers, and they want to improve.”

Which phrases are overused by airlines? What’s the best way to approach a carrier with a customer service problem?

“The form responses airlines have used in the past have been horribly robotic and as canned as tuna,” she says. “They cause customers to wonder, ‘Is this just a form letter?’ ”

And if you have to ask, you probably already know the answer. Yes, it’s a form letter.

Here’s an example. This is what a template looks like before O’Flahavan works her magic:

“Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience which you experienced. Due to operational disruption, and in an effort to maintain your flight as scheduled, a decision was made to replace the aircraft operating your flight on (date) with the available aircraft which was a smaller aircraft.

Unfortunately, this change resulted in a downgrade of the fare class to which you were assigned. Our sincerest apologies.”

And here’s the “after:”

“Thank you for writing to us about your flight to (destination) when we were not able to seat you in (class) Class. I’m really sorry this happened. We know our passengers count on traveling in the class in which they have purchased their tickets, and I understand that it was frustrating when this did not happen for you.”

See the difference? Less jargon, less stuffiness. A little more personalization.

I asked O’Flahavan for the phrases airlines should never use and what they really mean:

“We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Three words make this phrase galling: “any” and “may have.” “It’s a passive-aggressive non-apology,” she says. “A sincere version of this phrase sounds something like, “We’re sorry the kiosk wasn’t working properly when you were trying to print your boarding pass at LAX.” In other words, airlines that use the original phrase aren’t really sorry.

“Safety is our top priority.”

“Duh,” she says. “Of course safety is an airline’s top priority. This statement is really an indirect way of suggesting you, the customer, would put your own convenience over the safety of air travelers.”

“We will share your comments with the appropriate team for review.”

“This phrase is the quickest way to convince passengers the airline will ignore their feedback,” O’Flahavan says. How do you get around that? She suggests mentioning the team by name. Which group? Catering team? Baggage team? Customer service team?

“Like most major carriers …”

These words are often used to justify customer-unfriendly policies. Examples include high change fees, baggage fees and restrictive ticket policies. “This defensive wording never convinces the customer the airline was in the right,” she says. “Passengers don’t care, for example, that most major carriers charge change fees or overbook flights.”

“We appreciate your loyalty to our airline.”

No one buys that. “While top-tier frequent fliers may be loyal and committed to flying on one airline, the rest of us choose the airline that offers the cheapest ticket,” O’Flahavan says. “It sounds super insincere for the airline to mention loyalty to customers who are really just looking for a bargain.”

I’m fascinated by these phrases. I’ve read them so many times in complaint letters that I just gloss over them now, dismissing them as empty rhetoric. O’Flahavan is reluctant to connect the dots and say what we’re all thinking — that words will never make some of the airline industry’s customer-unfriendly policies fairer. But they can take the edge off the pain we feel every time we deal with a carrier.

So the next time you write to an airline, pay attention to how it responds. If nothing else, now you’ll know how much it really cares about customer service. And if it uses too many of these empty phrases, maybe you can recommend a class from Professor O’Flahavan.

Expert advice on writing an airline consumer complaint

• Be precise. Include details such as your confirmation code, flight number and travel date. “When the airline receives your email, it begins an investigation, which proceeds more efficiently when they have all the facts,” she advises.

• Cut the drama. When you claim that your entire 10-day trip to Barcelona was “ruined” because the flight attendant spilled orange juice on your leather jacket, you trigger eye-rolls at the airline. “Don’t amp up the tragedy when you complain,” she says. “Explain what happened and how it made you feel, but don’t exaggerate in a bid for more compensation. That’ll just backfire.”

• Explain what you want. Don’t leave the airline guessing. Are you asking them to refund your checked bag fee? To add miles to your frequent-flier account? To simply apologize? “While explaining what you want doesn’t mean you’ll get it, you shouldn’t ask the airline to figure out what would make you whole or happy,” O’Flahavan says.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.