How to win your next dispute with the airlines

Summer is the season of vacations and thunderstorms. With both come the possibility, or perhaps the absolute certainty of unpleasant airline experiences. With unpleasant airline experiences come the opportunity to make the airlines aware of those experiences, seeking recognition or—better yet—redress.

Disputing with the airlines may be (and usually is) uncomfortable. But by describing what to reveal in the course of the dispute, this post will try to show you that even airline problems are negotiable. In particular, we’ll consider what to reveal about your alternatives (BATNA) and bottom line (reservation price).

To start the discussion, imagine the following situation (which definitely did not happen to me in May 2014, on a carrier we will disguise as Reunited Airlines).

You’re scheduled to depart lovely O’Hare Airport for Baltimore at 5 pm on Sunday afternoon. At 5, the departure time becomes 6. At 6, it becomes 7. At 7, it becomes…you get the picture. Each time it moves back an hour, it also becomes a different gate that is literally at the other end of O’Hare’s B-Concourse (which, by the way, is approximately as far as Baltimore). Feeling fatigued from your seven strolls across the airport, you can only imagine what the sweet but increasingly irritated elderly couple is thinking. Well after 1 am, you finally board the flight. Settling in to enjoy a well-deserved snooze en route to Baltimore, you discover that your crew is no longer permitted to fly, per FAA regulations. Well, isn’t that convenient. Waiting for the jetway to walk yourself back into the airport, you then learn that it’s broken. Yep, there it is, 3 feet from the plane. No worries, half an hour later, Reunited has found someone to fix it. Well after 2 am now, the airline tells you a specific gate where an agent will meet you to book a hotel room. One problem: there is no agent at that gate, or any gate, anywhere in the airport, it seems. Having literally cornered an agent who was apparently on her way home, you finally obtain a crummy hotel room on the wrong side of the tracks. Arriving at said room, it’s now about 3:30 am, by which time you could have driven to Baltimore.

Not that I’ve actually had that exact experience on Reunited in May 2014. But imagine that you did. And imagine, as so often happens, that you later get on the phone with a helpful Reunited agent in order to communicate your plight and receive some redress in the form of Reunited miles. Imagine, finally, that you’re a frequent flier on Reunited but are seriously considering switching to Outwest Airlines, which just happens to have a lot more flights from Baltimore. Unless Reunited gives you 5,000 frequent flier miles, you’ve decided that you’ve simply had it. Sounds like a reservation price (5,000 miles) and BATNA (Outwest). If you’ve been reading the previous posts, maybe you’ve also developed a goal (target); let’s call it 25,000 miles.

The question of the day is: what do you tell the Reunited agent about your reservation price and BATNA? In terms of your reservation price, do you tell them that that you won’t accept a mile less than 5,000? What happens when you do? They may well say no, as you’ve already demonstrated your unwavering loyalty through your frequent flying. But if they do say yes, chances are it will sound like this: “We are very sorry about your experience, which does not meet our exacting customer service standards. In recognition of this experience, we are prepared to offer you…wait for it…5,000 miles.” Surprise! Their offer exactly matches your reservation price. They know your bottom line; why would they offer anything more? So no, revealing your reservation price is generally a poor practice, as it gives the other side the green light to extend an offer that barely meets your minimal standards.

But what about your BATNA? Should you tell Reunited that you’re seriously considering abandoning the friendly skies in favor of the generally non-annoying, non-delayed, non-gate-changed, non-clocked-out, non-broken, non-misinformed skies? Well, if you’re seriously considering doing that, then the answer is yes. If your alternative is favorable enough that you would actually exercise it, then it’s probably a good idea to let your counterpart know—politely, of course. Indeed, the real question is not whether to reveal your BATNA, but how. I generally offer three pieces of advice:

  • Wait until the end. If you can achieve a favorable outcome without threatening to leave, that’s usually better and more pleasant for everyone involved.
  • State your BATNA indirectly. If you tell your counterpart everything there is to know about your BATNA (like the fact that you have never flown on Outwest because of Reunited’s excellent mileage program), they will be able to take a good guess at your reservation price.
  • Couple your BATNA with your target. At the same time you indirectly indicate that Baltimore is located in the metropolitan Washington area, serviced by all of the major airlines and then some, offer to take your BATNA off the table if they are able to award you, say, 25,000 miles.

So the message is this: never reveal your reservation price. It lets the other party swipe at your Achilles heel by making an offer that just kind of / sort of / barely / minimally / maybe exceeds your bottom line. But if you have a credible and strong BATNA, let them know—eventually, indirectly, and in combination with your target.

Have you ever tried anything similar with the airlines? What happened?

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6 thoughts on “How to win your next dispute with the airlines

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