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.

Summer travel synopsis

If you’ve hit the roads or visited the airport recently, you know that the summer travel season is well underway. Thus, I thought this an opportune time to review some of the many ways negotiation research can make travels negotiable. To that end, here’s a brief synopsis of a few past posts on travel, along with links to the relevant articles (you can find more by clicking on “Travel” along the bottom right):

  1. Negotiating with hotels: Anytime we visit a hotel, we encounter many situations that would benefit from a negotiation. Some of these situations involve substandard accommodations and unacceptable living conditions, the negotiation serving to make your stay bearable. But others involve opportunities to make you and the hotel happier at the same time. This post considers the many aspects of a hotel stay rife for a negotiation.
  2. Negotiating with seatmates: Whenever we find ourselves on an airplane, sitting approximately 1 cm from someone we don’t know and often don’t want to, we have many opportunities to negotiate the terms of our ever-so-cozy adventure. From directing the overhead air to spilling into your seat, our fellow fliers give us oh-so-many opportunities to negotiate. This post points out a few of the most prominent.
  3. Airline complaints: Anytime we fly, we stand to have problems not just with our seatmates but with our carrier. Indeed, it often seems that every flight we take is slightly less pleasant. This post discusses how to negotiate the resolution of your grievances with the airline, recommending you show your cards carefully.
  4. Traffic jams as social dilemmas: Perhaps we drive to our destinations instead? If so, then we encounter a lot of other people driving there too. And everyone must be late, as everyone is cutting everyone else off, revealing their apparent disregard for the entire remainder of humanity. This post discusses driving as a social dilemma, considering some ways to solve the dilemma and thus make everyone’s drive more negotiable.
  5. Vacation preferences: Admittedly, this post is not about summer but about the winter holidays. It discusses what to do when you and your significant other want to spend the same holiday in different places. But the lesson is just as applicable to the summer months: don’t split a short period of time 50-50, leaving everyone mildly unhappy. Instead, seek out a creative way to allocate your time, leaving everyone happier in the long run.

I hope a brief review of these postings helps to remind you, while afoot on your summer adventures, that opportunities to negotiate surround around us. Indeed, they often follow us when we leave our abodes in favor of less familiar surroundings. Bon voyage!

Coalitions with co-travelers: Making delays negotiable

I’ve experienced a lot of flight delays, but never arrived at an airport seven hours before a delayed flight departed. Such was the case on a recent trip from St. Louis to Baltimore. Thanks to some substantial snowfall somewhere else, the plane that was supposed to return me to Baltimore was arriving in St. Louis two hours from 6 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm, 9, and 10 pm. Thanks, snow.

Clearing security at about 5 pm and receiving an email about the impending delay, I held out the distinct hope that this situation could be averted by standing by on an earlier flight that departed around 5:20. At the desk for that flight, however, I encountered another traveler from my own delayed flight trying every tactic in the book. “Can I pay you some money to get on the earlier flight?” she asked the agent. “Let me tell you why I need to be in Baltimore right away.” “My boyfriend is gonna be so sad!” Ten minutes later, seeing the conversation continuing, the agent growing beleaguered, the earlier flight boarded, and my own chances of getting on it falling by the minute, I realized that I had to break up this conversation to make life negotiable.

So what could I do? Well, I could’ve gotten angry at the annoying traveler or interrupted the conversation rudely, asking whether she was planning on letting anyone else talk to the agent ever. In other words, I could’ve formed a coalition with the Southwest agent, teaming up against the annoying traveler to make both of our lives more negotiable. But would that’ve gotten me on the flight? Probably not, as the traveler would’ve trained her monologue on me, delaying us all a lot longer.

So instead of forming a coalition with the agent, I thought, I need to form a coalition with the annoying traveler. Only by aligning myself with the force interfering with my goal could I hold out any hope of attaining it. And that is what I did. “Oh, are you on the delayed flight to Baltimore too?” I asked her, knowing full-well that she was. “Yes,” she opined woefully, “you too?” “Yes,” I opined in return. And then seized the opportunity, albeit brief, to address the agent: “May I get on the waitlist too?” And thus I did.

Now, full disclosure, getting on the waitlist did absolutely no good whatsoever. There was one seat available on the earlier flight, meaning that lucky #6 on the standby list (Mr. Gunia / BC) did not quite make it. (Nor did annoying #5). Still, had there been six seats available, this tactic of forming a coalition with the disputant rather than going to war with her—well, it would’ve paid off in spades. So I still think it’s worth recommending as a means of making life negotiable.

When we have to negotiate with multiple parties, we’re usually tempted to join forces with the person who seems most supportive—in this case, the friendly Southwest agent. By doing that, we think, we’ll be able to overpower any annoying impediments. In fact, when we do that, the annoying impediments often take exception, trying everything in their power to stymie our aspirations. So, assuming we have a serious but not a mortal difference of opinion with the people standing in our way, it’s often more effective to form a coalition with them. By doing that—by expressing empathy with another passenger’s plight, for example—we can often flip them from adversaries to supporters, or at least to less serious impediments.

With the airlines, it often seems that few tactics can make life negotiable. But forming a coalition with the co-passengers impeding us is one tactic worth a try, to practice our negotiation skills if not to arrive in Baltimore any sooner.

Negotiating with seatmates: Making flights negotiable

I recently experienced the joy of a 13-hour flight without a functioning video system (thanks “Reunited Airlines“!). On the plus side, those 13 hours afforded ample time to reflect on making life negotiable. What I realized was that flights themselves offer untold opportunities for improving our lot through some simple negotiation strategies, many of which I’ve already discussed on this blog.

So while the memories of those 13 hours are fresh in my brain (not to mention other body parts), I thought I’d jot down a few of the many opportunities for in-flight negotiations with our fellow passengers. You might consider negotiating if your flying compatriots are…

  • Taking up too much space / using your armrest / spreading their newspaper: Perhaps the most common offense, our fellow passengers often seem blissfully unaware that they haven’t purchased two seats, one being yours. Here, I’d advise making the first offer by occupying all of your own space before they sit down—and I do mean all of it. Then don’t let that arm leave the armrest! And if their newspaper strays into your space, well then, it may be time for a thoroughgoing yawn and stretch of the arms.
  • Blowing the air on you: Why do they do that? Can’t they see your eyebrows flapping in the breeze? Here, I find that simply asking them if you can move the blower a bit may help, as they probably don’t have any awareness of your impending frostbite. And if they’re really that hot, well then, they’d probably appreciate a more direct encounter with the gale-force winds.
  • Kicking / bumping your seat: This one’s tricky, as it often involves people of an age group that is physically incapable of regulating their leg movements. All too often, though, it involves people old enough to control their appendages with precision. With adults at least, I find that sharing information about your frustration by casting a brief (albeit intense) glance backwards is enough to curtail the kicking. If not, then your counteroffer could involve a sudden seat recline.
  • Moving your bag / cramming something on top of it: It’s amazing – once that bag goes into the overhead bin, others seem to totally forget that somebody actually owns it. Who among the flying public has not seen someone else crushing their bag in a futile attempt to cram their enormous treasure chest into the bin? And how did they get that thing onboard anyway? Frustrating as this behavior might be, I find that it most often results from a fear of having to check the treasure chest, not a malign attempt to destroy your Samsonite. Thus, it’s more of an integrative negotiation than a distributive negotiation: you both want to find a suitable place for the treasure chest. Accordingly, I often offer to help the person with the treasure chest, even while preventing it from puncturing my 3-oz toothpaste.
  • Blocking you from using the bathroom: It’s the moment that every flier fears. A large cup of coffee, a window seat, turbulence requiring a sustained seatbelt, and a sleeping set of seatmates. If you get to that point, it’s too late. You better hold it or jump over them. The solution to this one starts way before the need to go—at the very beginning of the flight. While I’m the last person to seek out an extended, transformative conversation with my seatmates, it is helpful to schmooze at least a little upon boarding, if only by smiling or saying hello. This early overture toward trust will pave your path to the bathroom later.

These examples are mostly for fun, but they do point out how often we can (and probably should) negotiate our way through the most common situations. Here’s hoping they start you thinking about all of your own opportunities to negotiate (or at least make your next flight a bit more negotiable).

Have you ever negotiated on a plane?

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?