Flying by the Seat of Their Pants.

Deadlock, indeed.

The man, who’d refused to leave when asked, claimed he was a doctor and needed to return to his patients. In response, the airline called security who forcibly threw him off the flight. Others filmed the controversy and uploaded the deplorable image of the resisting passenger being dragged along the carpeted aisle and forced off the plane.

United descended into a public relations maelstrom.

What could have United done to avoid such an incident? What elementary negotiation tips could have been applied?

  • Influencing – the mindset of passengers by thoroughly explaining why it was so important for four airline staff to get on board. This early influencing, if undertaken well, may have induced passengers to comply with the airline’s request
  • Process Management – did United approach this dilemma with a considered management of the negotiation process? It seems highly unlikely. Was there any strategy at all beyond offering willing passengers two concessions (cash and hotel payment)? When these concessions failed to produce a result (a willing passenger foregoing their flight for the airline’s benefit) did airline staff know, in advance, they’d start hauling people off board?
  • Know your BAE – If you’re going to go into a negotiation, have a clear map of options you can put forward, your alternatives. Know your ‘Best, Alternative, Elsewhere’ before emotions ratchet up the heat. For United that may have meant prior checking with their staff to gauge if any could fly later if passengers were unable to volunteer their seats.
  • Perception of gain – United’s actions demonstrate how vital it is for negotiators to interrogate their perception of gain before negotiations commence. In hindsight, United would surely struggle to justify how flying four staff back to Louisville at a certain time (their supposed gain) justified the harm to their reputation, yet alone the damage done to the passenger. Seasoned negotiators know the ‘fixed mindset’ is bound to deliver a sub-optimal outcome.
  • Diagnose Two Levels of Needs – When faced with an intransigent individual, a competent negotiator will deduce the person’s stated and hidden needs. Recognising the other parties hidden needs is sensible. The underlying needs, we know, are those that most powerfully influence the direction of an individual’s decision making. It’s important to draw out the needs that lie beneath the surface, especially when the negotiation is appearing intractable.

After this incident, perhaps ENSI could invite United on a little flight journey we perform in-house. The ENSI negotiating process ‘helicopter’ is a vital step on our methodology journey enabling negotiators to get the all encompassing overview, the skills to ensure the vital outcomes of a negotiation are kept in sight at all times. United, it’s time to get on-board.

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ENS Team