The art of appeal: 5 tips that will turn a “no” into a “yes”




Teresa Ferris is mad.

She recently paid her airline a $100 “unaccompanied minor” fee when her son flew alone from Oakland to Los Angeles. It didn’t buy her much, she says.

“After he landed, there was no record on the computer of him flying as an unaccompanied minor,” Ferris remembers. “I couldn’t get the paperwork needed to pass security to meet him at the gate in time.”

Her son walked off the plane on his own and found his way to the baggage claim area alone. Ferris complained, and the airline refunded her $100 fee and offered her a $100 voucher toward a future flight.

“I’m disappointed, because I would have to spend money to get any additional compensation,” she says. “Am I stuck with it?”

No, you’re never stuck with an answer a company gives you. But there’s an art to a successful appeal. Here are the five steps.

Write back — if you can.
Often, a company will send a make-good offer via email, as they did with Ferris. The easiest way to let it know you don’t like the offer is, obviously, to say so. But that’s sometimes easier said than done. Too often, the email ends with: “Please do not respond to this email as this mailbox is not monitored.” Oh, really? You’re sending an offer and you don’t care if I like it? Puh-leeze!

Find someone who can give you a “yes.”
There’s always an executive who can overrule an insincere and seemingly arbitrary offer, but finding that person can be exceedingly difficult. I’ve spent the last three years digging up the names, email addresses and phone numbers of the right customer service managers. If you need to appeal, that list is a great place to start.

Know what to say.
A written appeal to the right person is just the first step. You also have to know what to say, which isn’t always easy. Consider Ferris’ case. Are there any rules her airline broke when it lost the records of her unaccompanied minor? Did it violate any laws? As far as I can tell, the only thing it did was to make this customer a very nervous mother. A successful appeal would find a way to encapsulate that frustration into a succinct, emotion-free missive, and that takes some thoughtful consideration.

Offer a sensible resolution.
A company can’t read your mind, so in addition to expressing your frustration in a polite and coherent way, you have to offer a reasonable resolution. If a voucher being refunded along with the fee wasn’t enough, then what would work? Ferris wanted a round-trip ticket for her trouble, and she was willing to put that in writing. That seems like a more realistic request than, say, a round-trip voucher in first class (a common mistake novice complainers make).

Be reasonable about your chances.
Some cases are easier to appeal than others. After I reviewed Ferris’ grievance, I concluded her airline’s proposed settlement was relatively generous, but that it can’t hurt to ask for more. My advice? Hope for the best but expect another “no” from her airline. Normally, airlines don’t give round-trip vouchers for a failure to allow Mom to meet her son at the gate — but you never know.

I’m still waiting to hear back from Ferris about her grievance. I hope her airline can figure out a way to make her happy, but experience tells me that her appeal will need to strike the right chord. It’ll need to be calm, articulate, sensible — and it’ll need to reach the right person.

  • dcta


    “Ferris complained, and the airline refunded her $100 fee and offered her a $100 voucher toward a future flight.

    “I’m disappointed, because I would have to spend money to get any additional compensation,” she says. “Am I stuck with it?”

    She was refunded $100 AND they gave her a $100 voucher and she wants more? What are her damages? I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous.

  • James Penrose

    How old was Junior? Major difference in the situation if the kid was 8 vs. 16 especially as many parents treat the 16 year old the way my generation treated an 8 year old.

    The fee is ridiculous. For $100 for a one hour flight they could have designated a staff member full time to watch over the kid end to end and have still made a profit. You can get an OAK to LAX ticket for under $100 easily so they effectively charged more than a 100% extra for this “service”.

  • NedLevi

    I rarely comment on a fellow journalist’s article. I generally think it’s not fair to do so, but I’m going to make an exception here.

    First, permit me to commend Chris’ well thought out and dead right advice on how to successfully appeal a company decision with which one disagrees. I use these methods myself and have for years. They work.

    My problem isn’t with Chris, or his advice, but with Ms. Ferris, and what I perceive to be significant overreaching on her part.

    I completely agree with DCTA.

    Let’s face it, the airline, whoever they are, completely dropped the ball. Whatever the age, however long the duration of the flight, whatever the fee, they didn’t do the job they promised to perform. They violated the implied contract that existed between Ms. Ferris and themselves. Serious consequences could have resulted in their failure to properly supervise her son at the airport, regardless of his age. Ms. Ferris has every right to expect they would perform their job as promised, and for which she paid handsomely.

    Her son could have been seriously injured or worse, but fortunately he is fine.

    That said, the airline apologized, returned the fee as they didn’t fulfill their obligation, and gave a voucher to Ms. Ferris equaling the cost of the original fee for service. That sounds eminently fair to me, though I don’t think it’s quite enough overall. I would have asked for more myself, but not for personal compensation, as appears to be the case with Ms. Ferris.

    I would have asked the airline to explain to me what changes in their “Unaccompanied Minor Program” they were instituting to ensure a repeat of her son’s experience does not occur. Frankly, I would quickly escalate that issue to the President of the airline if an answer was not almost immediately forthcoming.

    Moreover, I would likely quickly escalate my serious concerns about the competency of the way that airline handles its unaccompanied minors with the FAA, to see if they could do something which would be long lasting. I’m not sure I could get action from them, but if there wasn’t satisfactory action by the airline, I certainly would try. I wouldn’t be adverse about going to the local press either. Local TV stations, in particular eat this stuff up. If I didn’t get a satisfactory answer about issue from the airline quickly, that’s where I’d head next.

    It seems that when you involve TV, government agencies, all of a sudden, take notice.

  • dcta

    I want to make clear that my “issue” is with Ms. Ferris as well – she’s pretty clear she doesn’t want to “spend money” to get more out of the airline. In other words, she does not what to hire an attorney to sue the airline, nor does she want to go to small claims court and pay those fees for filing. Regardless, any attorney would ask what her damages are and since there are none, would advise her to not bother suing and a small claims court would not find in her favor. Other than making her frantic (and her child actually managed to get past her at the exit from the gates and all the way to baggage – how’d that happen?), there really was not harm done. What could have happened is immaterial.