Every day, nearly 3 million passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports. And while the majority of these people make it to their destination safely and uneventfully, others may suffer from lost luggage, flight cancellations that leave them stranded at an airport, or even physical assault or battery on the airplane. If you have a complaint against an airline, what are your options?

Travel can be exhausting, and poor airline service can make the experience even worse.

Travel can be exhausting, and poor airline service can make the experience even worse.

Common Types of Complaints Against Airlines

Although every airline complaint is different, many common complaints against airlines fall into the following categories:

  • Lost baggage
  • Delayed flights
  • Canceled flights
  • Missed flight connections
  • Assault or harassment on the plane
  • Failure to provide a refund

In some cases, you may be able to resolve these issues by complaining directly to the airline or to the Department of Transportation (DOT). But in other situations, your best option for recovery may be filing a claim in small claims court.

Filing a Complaint Against an Airline

Depending on the situation, one option to resolve a dispute with an airline is to file a complaint directly with it. The DOT requires airlines to respond to consumer complaints within 60 days. If you're dissatisfied with the resolution the airline provides, or if the airline never responds to your complaint as required, you can move on to more serious actions.

Filing a Complaint With the Department of Transportation

The DOT frequently resolves complaints against airlines. Some of the common complaints it addresses include:

  • The airline oversold a flight
  • The airline lost, delayed, or damaged passenger luggage
  • The airline refused to process a flight refund
  • The flight was delayed, causing the passenger to miss a connecting flight
  • The airline wouldn't allow a parent to sit with their child
  • The airline refused to honor a rewards or frequent flyer program

Depending on the circumstances, you may be entitled to compensation from the airline.

To file a claim with the DOT, you'll need to submit an online complaint form available on the DOT's website. ‍After you submit a claim, the DOT will process it within a few weeks, then forward it to the airline and request a response. Then, the DOT will assign an analyst to review the claim and ensure that the airline is complying with all federal consumer protection practices and regulations.

But while the DOT will use your claim to track trends, it doesn't have strong enforcement authority on its own, so it may not be able to force an airline to provide you the relief you're requesting.

Filing a Small Claims Lawsuit Against an Airline

Another option to help recover damages for an airline's actions is by filing a small claims complaint. Small claims lawsuits are designed to allow claimants to pursue damages below a certain amount without requiring them to hire an attorney to litigate the case. Small claims courts have streamlined, simplified procedures to make them more accessible.

When you file a small claims lawsuit, the process will look something like this:

  • You'll file a complaint directly with the court, naming the defendant airline and outlining the reasons behind your request for damages.
  • The court (or a process server) will serve the complaint on the airline and provide it a certain period to respond.
  • In some cases, the court will set a hearing and require both sides to attend.
  • You'll present the evidence supporting your claim to relief at a hearing. The airline will also be allowed to present evidence in its defense.
  • The small claims judge may issue a ruling, order one or both parties to provide more information, or even refer the case to mediation.

Each state has its own small claims limits, so it's important to research your state's laws to ensure your case has the best chance of winning.

Can I sue for emotional distress?

"Emotional Distress" is something people often ask about when considering filing a suit. If a pilot or airline is negligent in their maintenance or operation of an aircraft and has made you fear for your life, then yes, you may be able to sue for emotional distress. The damages from the distress may ask the airline to pay you back for formal ental health services, therapy costs, ongoing difficulty at work due to emotional issues, and more. Some of the most common symptoms or results of "emotional distress" cited are:

  • Nausea
  • Tachycardia
  • Shaking
  • Symptoms of shock
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings
  • Intrusive thoughts/visual images of the event
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Whatever may have happened, you have options for filing a complaint and possibly suing the airline. And remember, Dispute can help you generate, notarize and file a small claim lawsuit in 10 minutes from your phone or computer.