Negotiating with the airlines (i.e., from a position of complete powerlessness)

Disputes with the airlines tend to elicit a sense of complete powerlessness. Bad seat? Full bin? Overbooked flight? It’s David versus Goliath x 10. Given that you need to get somewhere and they get to decide whether you do, your own power position seems tenuous, at best.

Since such disputes will probably only increase in the age of “Basic Economy” (airline-speak for terrible)—and since the airlines are but one of many bigger and brawnier counterparts we encounter on a daily basis—let’s use the airlines as an example to consider whether we, the weak, can still make life negotiable.

Despite our seeming lack of power, I submit that we still have at least five strategic options, affording us at least some semblance of power. They include:

  1. Exercising your alternatives: The former flagship carriers have tripped all over each other in a race to add fees and cut amenities. Southwest and a few others haven’t. As a former weekly traveler with a clinical addition to United, I understand the difficulty of making the switch. But I finally bit the bullet and switched to Southwest. And I survived to tell you that I’ve never been happier (on a plane). The ability to leave a particular partner is a major source of power in any negotiation.
  2. Increasing the costs of your departure: If you fly once a year and have no particular relationship with a flagship carrier, your friendly airline representative will probably hold the door on your way out. But if you fly with them all the time, use their credit card assiduously, and relish their vaunted status, they’re likely to protest a smidge more loudly when you make for the exit. In other words, if you slavishly show your loyalty to a particular carrier—connecting through Cleveland and Phoenix to get from Baltimore to St. Louis if you have to—then you’ll have slightly more leverage when push comes to shove.
  3. Negotiating with someone else: The best way to deal with a sense of powerlessness is often just to ignore it—especially by negotiating with someone who is no more powerful than yourself. Just try negotiating your way out of a cramped middle seat with your friendly flagship representative! But why do that, when you could instead give your middle seat to one of two lovebirds, who would prefer to sit next to the other lovebird than enjoy the window?
  4. Documenting their power abuses: Just because they’re powerful doesn’t mean they can be abusive. Such was the hard lesson taught to United by a bunch of passengers who caught their apparent mistreatment of Dr. David Dao on video, then posted it all over the interweb. You can fight fire with fire if you have to—and the airlines sometimes even pay attention.
  5. Demanding your due: People booted off United in the wake of the Dao incident have been known to receive four-digit figures. You could meekly accept the $300 voucher plus $0.30 bag of peanuts they offer (both which expire tomorrow), or you could hold out for the amount they’ve publicly promised to offer. I’ve heard that the latter is becoming popular—so popular that onboard auctions, where no one agrees to get booted until the four-digit figures start flowing, have been known to occur routinely.

In sum, in situations of seeming powerlessness, you still have options. Accordingly, you still have power. You may just have to think outside the overhead bin to find it.

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