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.

Southwest seat selection: The art of choosing the right partner

I recently offered some tips on dealing with annoying airline seatmates—the ones taking up your space or blowing the frigid air on you, for example. The underlying assumption was that you can’t choose your seatmates, and for most airlines (e.g., Reunited), that’s all-too-true.

Yet, a couple of recent flights on Southwest have reminded me that you sometimes CAN choose your seatmates. And that reminded me of a critical and more general point: you can often choose your negotiation partners—the company that fixes your faucets, the person who buys your car, the coworker you approach for help.

So in this post, I thought I’d offer some tips for choosing the best negotiation partners, drawing from the Southwest seat selection process (i.e., line up by number, board plane, choose seat) for inspiration. Ultimately, I think you’ll agree that paying particular attention to partner selection—on Southwest and in general—can make life more negotiable.

When selecting a seatmate or another negotiation partner, I would generally advise you to:

  • Choose someone who seems more rational than emotional. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, then you’ve walked on the plane, seen a bawling baby, and kept on walking. I know you have; we all have. Nothing against babies (I wouldn’t throw one out of a political rally), but it makes sense to choose negotiation partners who could at least potentially see the light of reason.
  • Choose someone complementary. If you anticipate an inability to stow your unwieldy behemoth of a bag, it makes sense to sit near a strapping young lad. If you plan on working, it makes sense to sit next to someone snoozing before the seatbelt sign goes on. As I’ve pointed out before, differences make deals possible. It makes sense to look for someone whose talents and needs complement your own.
  • Choose someone with whom you already agree. Alternatively, you could choose a partner with whom you’re already in complete agreement. Experienced Southwest fliers know that the businesspeople all buy priority boarding and sort themselves into the front of the plane, whereas the families with babies never do and sort themselves into the back. There’s no rule dictating such self-sorting, nor would I advocate forcing the babies backwards (again). But experienced fliers (and negotiators) know the wisdom of choosing partners with whom they already share a basic worldview.
  • Attract the partners you want. On one of my recent flights, the flight attendant jokingly encouraged passengers in the window and aisle seats to recruit the right type of person for the middle seats. She might’ve been joking, but it was funny because the joke contained a kernel of truth. Southwest fliers know that they can recruit a talker if they smile and chat with the people in the aisle. And they can recruit a quiet worker if they bury themselves in their Blackberry with furrowed brows. Partner selection’s not just about selecting someone; it’s about having the right person select YOU. So I’d encourage you to pay attention to the signals you’re sending and which partners they might be recruiting or driving away.
  • Have an alternative. The seat selection process generally works well, with mechanisms like these placing agreeable people together. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get a talker if you wanted a worker, a baby if you wanted a sleeper. You can’t always choose the people who surround you; such is the uncertainly of Southwest, of negotiation, and of life. In that case, all you can do is have an alternative, i.e., a BATNA. Being a worker myself, mine is a pair of brightly colored earplugs. (Honestly, though, I love babies.)

What’s the point of all this? The point is that negotiations don’t start when you sit down at the bargaining table. They start well beforehand, when you’re choosing which table to approach. Hopefully these tips offer some guidance for your next negotiation, or at least your next flight.

How do you select a seat on Southwest?

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?