Why are travelers punished for complaining?

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Christopher Elliott

It happened to Traci Fox.

When she complained loudly that her airline switched her nonstop flight from Philadelphia to Frankfurt to a one-stop, she was assigned seat 26B — a middle seat in the back of the plane — despite her elite status.

She found rows of empty seats online, which led her to conclude she was being penalized. “I may have been a little snippy on the phone,” admits Fox, a college professor from Philadelphia.

Travel employees admit they do it. Chelle Honiker, a consultant from Round Rock, Texas, recalls an unusually frank discussion with her travel agent, who confessed to punishing an entitled customer who was accustomed to flying in first class.

“She booked the chronic complainer in a middle seat and ordered a child meal,” she says. “So she got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

It’s probably happened to you, or perhaps you suspect it has. Maybe you argued with someone at the front desk and ended up in the broom closet next to the elevator. Or you were a little grumpy after waiting in a long line and a car rental agent handed you the keys to a beater. But now, the travel industry has taken a small but dangerous step toward sanctioning these punish-the-customer responses.

Common sense tells you that if you complain too much, you could end up banished to the back of the plane or even blacklisted. But it is unusual for anyone to put those consequences on paper.

Now, several U.K.-based travel companies, including British Airways, easyJet and Thomas Cook, have registered with the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to handle some consumer complaints. The service doesn’t cost anything for consumers, as long as they’re successful. But if their cases have no merit, they must fork over a £25 (about $32) fee.

The alternative dispute resolution process, which is used when customers and companies are at an impasse, is like a football team that challenges an official’s call, according to David Long, an assistant professor of business at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

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“I think that works well in team and corporate activities,” he says. “But not so much in personal disputes.”

Long says dinging a traveler with a fine for complaining is likely to make a bad situation worse. “When a customer feels wronged, research suggests that they are slow to forgive, they spread the negative word tenfold.”

Travel companies, and especially airlines, already allow the punishment of their own customers. Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general and Charleston, S.C.-based transportation attorney, says it happens “every day.”

“It is impossible to tell how many passengers are abused, charged and arrested on false allegations or hauled off to jail for merely asking questions or protesting some mistreatment,” she says. “I know for sure it happens at least once a day because that is how often I get contacted (by passengers with such a grievance).”

Yet some travelers deserve blacklisting. Michelle Bell used to work for a tour operator and routinely had to flag troublemakers for boorish behavior, including those who made ridiculous demands, ignored important documentation requirements or made racist and offensive comments.

And she has been the beneficiary of blacklisting, too. When she was 12, she bused tables at the Holiday Inn her father managed in Mount Pleasant, Texas. One day she accidentally spilled a glass of water on a customer, who started screaming at her.

“My dad told him he was no longer welcome at that hotel and he could go across the street to the Ramada Inn,” she remembers.

For all we know, the alternative resolution services offered by the Centre may help airline passengers who have nowhere to go — passengers with complex cases or who ran up against an airline or tour operator’s intransigence. The dispute resolution service specializes in cases of denied boarding, delays, and cancellation, as well as baggage loss or destruction. European law affords airline passengers more protections than American law, including cash compensation for flight delays.

But the price tag is likely to be more than a £25 here or there. Fining complainers could have a real chilling effect on consumer behavior. If the idea catches on, travelers might be more likely to shut up when they should really be speaking up.

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How to avoid being blacklisted

• Remain calm. If you are complaining about anything, remain as calm and motionless as possible, advises Schiavo. The most frequent reason for arresting passengers is the “lunge.” The airline workers involved in disputes “all seem to use that word,” she says. A lunge leaves no mark, but airline employees can always claim they felt threatened.

• Find something nice to say. If you sugarcoat a grievance in niceties, you’re far less likely to be removed from the plane or placed on the “do not rent” list. It’s all in the presentation, and when your presentation is positive, you’re likely to avoid recrimination.

• Take notes and pictures and create a paper trail. One of the fastest way to get blacklisted is to ask an employee for his or her name and to demand a real-time resolution. A far better approach? Discreetly take pictures, record video or take good notes and then present your complaint to the company in writing. Being confrontational can escalate the situation and could even end with a call to law enforcement.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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