We were sitting on a Boeing 767 at Sky Harbor International Airport around 4 p.m., waiting for a United Airlines flight to leave for Chicago, when a flight attendant told us our weather-delayed 2:31 p.m. flight would experience even more delay because of a scheduling mix-up.
Our captain had not shown up and, while they were trying to locate him, they also were searching to find another pilot who could fly us to Chicago.
I started to feel nervous that I might miss my own seminar the next morning in Chicago. So began my most recent negotiation with an airline. In this case, I needed to “negotiate” my way to Chicago.
What did I do, and what can you do next time you’re sitting on a delayed flight and aren’t sure it will get to your destination in time for that critical business meeting?
One, immediately check out your alternative to your “agreement” with the airline. In other words, assume the airline refuses to fly you to your destination – and find out about your travel alternatives.
I called my travel agent and found out the next Chicago flight with available seats was due to leave at 6 p.m. on the same airline.
Two, attempt to get as much information as you can about the facts, issues and opinions underlying your delayed status. In all negotiations, information is power. In my case, I approached several flight attendants and nicely inquired about our situation.
Simply by asking questions and observing my surroundings, I gathered some highly relevant and useful information.
For instance, I learned:
• The flight attendants possessed little information about our status.
• Their lack of information appeared to be consciously determined by the airline.
• Some of their information appeared of dubious quality (one told me their 6 p.m. flight was also delayed – a fact I later found to be untrue).
• My fellow passengers appeared comfortable, with some watching free movies while others read, or even slept.
My third step? Evaluate the information. At first glance, this information might appear to send mixed messages.
The airline’s highly reluctant information sharing approach promotes an adversarial, competitive relationship with customers. This increased my distrust of the statement that we would be leaving shortly.
On the other hand, one might think my fellow passengers’ attitude would provide me with some comfort about staying on the plane. No one appeared to be leaving, so perhaps they knew something I didn’t.
Yet, our negotiation research tells us many will look to others’ actions to decide the appropriateness of our own – even when the “herd” of folks might be basing its decision on illogical rationales.
My fellow passengers’ inaction made me even more interested in getting complete and accurate information.
How can we do this? Move up the ladder to those with the information or the authority to get what you want. Here, I left the plane and spoke with the gate agent.
I got different answers. One, a captain was allegedly on his way to the airport. And two, we should be ready to leave as soon as he arrives, probably within 30 minutes.
By this time, however, it was 5 p.m. I thus wanted to ensure – if they canceled that flight – I would have a seat on the 6 p.m. flight.
Back to my alternative. This time, however, I needed to turn my alternative into a practical possibility. So I asked the gate agent to also book me on the 6 p.m. flight.
She refused, telling me they had a policy prohibiting “double booking.”
Since she appeared completely inflexible on this point and told me she didn’t even have the authority to double book, I asked to speak to her supervisor.
In the end, my travel agent booked me on the 6 p.m. flight. Overhearing this, the gate agent returned and told me her supervisor approved the double booking.
It was a good thing, too. When I left on the 6 p.m. flight, the Boeing 767 was still sitting on the tarmac. While a captain had arrived, the flight’s long delay had disqualified several of its crew from working the flight.
I’m afraid the vast majority of the 767’s passengers lost that negotiation. It’s too bad, especially as there were extra seats on the 6 p.m. flight.
Published May 26, 2000 The Business Journal