Why are travelers punished for complaining?

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.

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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.

“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.

Should companies be able to blacklist customers?

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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.

44 thoughts on “Why are travelers punished for complaining?

  1. Some customers need to be blacklisted. There are crazies out there. I remember when I managed a call center, we had to blacklist some abusive customers. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen. And it was only for patterns of behavior, not a one off incident. One blacklisted customer actually happened to live near the office, tailgated an employee into a secure building, and had to be arrested. I remember how terrifying that was, and that is precisely the reason some people need to be banned from a business. You never know when they’re really, truly crazy.

    1. Some call center employees can also be obnoxious. If the call center is actually in India, the problem is compounded because of the language barrier. The caller is often frustrated by a ridiculous menu before being able to speak with a person. When I wanted to cancel two cell phones I had with AT&T, I was kept on the phone for one hour while they kept transferring me to other agents. I actually spoke to five different agents before they finally cancelled the phones. I think they hoped I would just give up and not cancel.

      1. I 100% agree. I’ve had the same frustrating experiences. In the case I referenced, to make a long story short, the man gave his credit card to a group of employees to use. Those employees made tens of thousands of dollars in purchases and promptly left the country. The customer was angry because he was financially liable for those purchases. He gave them the card to use for several legitimate purchases, so he had to pay. He was not happy about it. Frankly, I think he got what was coming to him by hiring under the table employees, that’s karma. We had to blacklist him when he called literally hundreds of times a day (I am not exagerrating, I saw the reports) and started making threats on a recorded line. We had to involve police, because he was making specific threats against individuals. He was arrested for violating a protective order in addition to trespass.

        1. I agree in the credit card case, the customer was a fool to give his card to these employees. His only legal recourse would be against the employees, but good luck with that if they vanished.

      2. After five minutes, state “I am cancelling my service as of today. I do not authorize any further charges to my credit card account.” Repeat it twice, then hang up.

        If they try to bill you further, credit card chargeback.

    2. I too have seen the sort of customer behavior you describe, but the power to blacklist is a power that WILL be abused, especially in the travel industry, where you are dealing with customers who you as an employee are never likely to see again. If an agent is having a bad day and just doesn’t want to deal with you, the temptation to lie to get rid of that person is irresistible. If that UK fine idea catches on, employees dealing with a complaint will be able rub it in by adding the arbitrary power to fine to their arbitrary power to not bother dealing with a complaint.

      If you see a customer indulging in crazy or criminal behavior, call the cops on them. That’s what they are there for.

      1. I agree it can be abused, absolutely. But the truth is that just like most customers are good, honest people, so are most employees. But it also goes to show that being polite and reasonable goes a very long way. Just like someone that is rude gets the worst seat, someone that is kind and patient gets the best. I think it’s more that someone will go out of their way if you’re nice to them, but will only do the bare minimum if you’re rude.

      2. Agreed. It is an invitation to abuse. And the part in the article about a travel agent punishing a client by putting her in an undesirable seat and ordering a child’s meal is so unprofessional. If the client was so annoying, why not just tell her they can’t work together and suggest she find another agent?

        1. As a customer service agent I have done that – just told them to get off my line and go to another agent (with explanation of course that they are being too abusive or unreasonable). Unfortunately some people just WANT TO continue the fight/ argument and actually refuse to do go to another agent. Then we get the bigger “guns” and call in a supervisor but this gets dicey when we either cannot get a hold of a supervisor or the one on duty is going to give away the store for the most foolish complaints.
          So, yeah, mess with me **enough and I AM GOING TO SLAM YOUR AZZ INTO A HORRIBLE SEAT. Now, go ahead and continue the fight with the gate agent but remember I’m also looking out for my coworkers so I will have already phoned the gate to be prepared for the obnoxious loud behavior, etc. Generally we truly stick together.
          **”enough” = you have verbally harassed me for quite a while. I am not talking about people who have genuine concerns or complaints and the conversation stays reasonable and there is fair give and take.

          1. I have found that the best response to people that want to argue is to remain as absolutely calm as possible. I have gone so far as to say things (in the kindest, most even tone of voice possible) like “yes, I’m an idiot” or “absolutely, the company is stupid and out to get you”. It just pisses them off more, makes them look even more stupid, and they’ll eventually give up and try to argue with someone else. I do not miss having customers…..

  2. I work at a rental car company and we definitely have a do not rent list. Abusive language, etc will land you there, but more often it’s failure to return the vehicle, not paying the bill or returning the car with dog hair all over the interior. The center for dispute resolution is interesting – there is definitley a phenomenon where customers complain essentially until they get what they want, discount, etc. I think if they had something to lose if their complaint was false, that might cut out some of the bogus complaints that bog down the system and cost travel companies in money, resources and also could coarsen attitudes toward legitimate complaints.

  3. I don’t mind if companies maintain a ‘difficult customers’ list or even a ‘do not serve’ list, but it should be -above board- and someone placed on that list should be formally notified.

    1. And have a method for getting off the blacklist, either by making nice or by the passage of time, or by having the person who put the customer on the list to be shown as a serial blacklister.

  4. Customers are already punished many times for expecting honorable, decent customer service. This is just another layer of discouraging. I wonder which side is favored by this service, the ‘one of’ customer complaint or the thousands of complaints that they handle for the companies? I’m just cynical enough to think that the service will provide the appearance of fairness, but in reality – it is another rigged game favoring businesses.

  5. Always a good idea to be polite to workers. As much as we hate being victims of the big airlines and car rental companies, please, bear in mind how much more horrendous it must be to have to go to work for them EVERY SINGLE DAY!

  6. It’s a no-win situation. Yes, companies need to be able to blacklist abusive customers…but some companies will abuse that right and blacklist customers who don’t deserve it.

    People can be jerks on both sides of the desk. I’ve seen airline passengers screaming the DYKWIM? question (“do you know who I am?”) at poor beleaguered agents when they couldn’t grant them the free first-class upgrade they felt they were entitled to.

    But I’ve also seen mean, spiteful gate agents and flight attendants doing some pretty awful things to passengers who didn’t deserve it.

    I’ll never forget the time I witnessed this myself. Our flight was delayed by several hours, and then we were finally boarded…sat for an hour, then off-boarded due to a “service issue”…then onboarded again, then off-boarded. At one point the gate agent was telling everyone to get ON the plane, and the flight attendants were telling everyone to get OFF the plane, and we were bumping into each other in the jetway! And all the while, the gate agent was rudely barking at us and treating us like annoyances rather than customers.

    One poor guy finally had it – after hours of rude treatment, this young man lost his temper for only a moment and raised his voice to the nasty gate agent, asking if she could at LEAST give us some kind of update (we hadn’t been told anything for hours). He didn’t say or do anything remotely offensive or threatening, in fact he was far less rude to her than she was to him! We were all grateful that somebody had the cajones to actually speak up to her.

    Finally we were buckled in and ready to leave the gate, when this gate agent came barreling down the aisle with two cops, demanding they toss this guy off the plane! He hadn’t done or said anything worthy of getting bounced, but she was PO’d and he was gonna suffer her wrath. We all groaned – not another delay! – and I spoke up and tried to talk to the cops, telling them that I witnessed the “confrontation” and he hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, the gate agent spun on her heels and hissed at me to keep my mouth shut or she’d have ME bounced! And off the guy went.

    Air travel is such a stressful and highly emotionally charged experience these days. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised this kind of thing happens.

    1. Going along with the airline incident, the “lunge” mentioned in the original article can really be used by a vengeful employee…..just by using that word, even if the customer didn’t do anything remotely that way, the employee can create a major he said-she said hassle for the customer.

      1. Exactly. In the incident I related, this young man did nothing of the kind. It was clear he was frustrated, and he did raise his voice (and I think he even used a bad word – oh nooos!) but he was not even remotely threatening. And we were all feeling the same thing he was. When they came to eject him, I desperately wanted to stand up for him…but I was afraid I was going to end up being ejected myself. It was one of the few times in my life I have truly felt scared of someone who had total unreasonable power over me. By doing nothing other than speaking up for an injustice, I might have ended up getting arrested. SUCH an abuse of power!

    2. Your story is a perfect example of why I think that all passenger ejections should require a bureaucratic filing with the FAA, with signed personal statements by every crew member involved in the incident and by the ejected passenger. None of this “because somebody felt offended” lawn fertilizer.

      The FAA would have the power to fine airlines and blacklist personnel for gratuitously bad behavior in such ejections, This would be a worthy counterweight to the power that crews have now to invoke police power on passengers.

      1. There should also be signed statements by witnesses. I don’t feel we should leave it only to the crew – they might feel pressured to get onboard with the story against the passenger whether it’s true or not. In this case I would have appreciated having the opportunity to speak up for this man, without fear that I would be ejected myself – and I know that many other passengers felt the same way. A few of us discussed it after we finally took off, and things were very cold between us and the flight attendants for the duration of that flight.

  7. You put people in stressful situations and it’s inevitable that there is going to be conflict. Fly8ng itself is stressful for many. Arriving hours early and then often having to deal with rude TSA agents is enough to start your day off wrong. And then you may be faced with delays, lost luggage, etc, and then you have about an even chance of being dealt with in a courteous manner. And people are surprised that everyone isn’t cheerful?

    There are many jobs that deal with stressful situations. For the most part, they aren’t allowed to retaliate against the customer. But in the world of travel, it seems that consumers will always draw the short end of the stick.

    1. Turn it on “early” to avoid them noticing you have turned it on….and even video if you have a camera that can be hidden.

  8. This is a very important article. Consumers must keep this info in mind when contacting companies. Excessive, frivolous and/or abusive requests will be noted on your account. Consumers should never hesitate to make a valid request, they should always consider when writing a threatening letter to a CEO over airline meal service for a few extra points was worth the effort when they are stranded somewhere and discover they used up their goodwill.

    1. Exactly. There was a story about a Jewish Rabbi who complained so much the airline simply refused to sell him any more tickets. Then he complained about that. The airline’s position was “you complain about everything and nothing we do makes you happy, so maybe you should be someone elses customer.”

      1. That is the perfect example. The airline decided the rabbi was a total schnorrer. It’s a Yiddish expression, if you are unfamiliar, and google will explain it better than I can. I’m super pro consumer but think there should be more blacklisting. The bad apples ruin things for everyone. That’s probably why there are no more bereavement fares, etc. There is so much distrust now.

        1. Right, and we won’t even get started on “fake” service animals. If every company wasn’t so tightly strapped into their politically correct straight jackets, this stuff would not continue to happen.

  9. Or that’s what the clerk heard – “Middle seat way back.”

    The better answer to a question like this is: “Any aisle seat” or “Any window seat”. Leads to less misunderstanding. Similarly answering any question with a positive response instead of a negative seems to result in a better result.

  10. “The poor people at the airline counters”??? While that may be the case in some instances, it’s just as often the fault of the airline employee. They need to put themselves in the mind of the traveler and the stress flying itself brings.

  11. Those “poor” people behind the airline counters (and I know you don’t mean monetarily), are making upwards of $25-$30 an hour this year** – so by the same token, I think they should be able to take a little heat.
    ** UA, WN, AA, DL.

  12. Try DL, United and AA at just about any large U.S.A. airport. Of course this is not a starting salary (most range between $12-$14/hour) so I am talking about agents with probably 20 to 30+ years at the highest end of the wage scale. Hint: United and AA negotiated via unions. DL and AA just raised their agent salaries. United seems the highest of those three but I think they are actually being beat out by Southwest. Nice, high school education, no experience, common sense or troubleshooting necessary. Sadly, many do not appreciate it.

  13. I can’t get past the first few paragraphs. An elite status (credit card holder, butt in seat miles earned, no difference) traveler’s itinerary changes, likely due to a schedule change/routing change, perhaps a non-stop route eliminated. Annoying, yes. So she is automatically re-routed (along with anyone else affected) and she is auto-assigned a crappy seat. Why doesn’t she log onto her account and change her seat? The ability to select/change a seat prior to check-in is a common benefit of elite status on pretty much any international-flying airline I can think of (save Southwest’s recent foray into international travel or some other ULCC). She said she found plenty of open seats online, which indicated the itinerary change happened before the day of travel. Why does she automatically think it was a personal affront because she complained?

    And don’t get me started on peanut butter and jelly sandwich travel agent. Are we supposed to believe that cockamamie story?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my issues with a lot of travel industry actions (looking at you American Airlines and your incremental 10 minute delays that last for hours…) Not an industry apologist, just someone begging for some critical thinking before launching into an argument that may be based on, well, nothing…

  14. actually, if they were automatically given a seat (which is the norm), flights book from the back forward — which is why you need to go online to get the seats, or go over options while on the phone. Elite or not, if auto seats is the default, and the agent doesn’t bother to manually assign seats, you get back of the bus!

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