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.

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?