Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“Nologue” – Not Bargaining with the Devil: The American Airlines Experience

We had turned in the excellent Ford Fusion rental car at National after a very stressless trip from our vacation home in Vermont and were approaching the drop off for American Airlines when my wife Pinky asked about my passport. She normally controls the passport and ticketing papers but I had left her and our dog Bailey in Vermont to take care of business in Puerto Rico and had taken the passport with me. I confidently reached in the carry on luggage pocket but it was not there; it was also not in my briefcase. I then checked for my license and it was also not in my wallet. One more check of the briefcase turned up copies of the two documents and I then remembered that I had made copies of both documents for the Water Company in order to change my billing address (typical bureaucratic requirements that make no practical sense). Obviously I had left the originals in the copy machine at our vacation home more than two hours away. Nice job, Jorge.!

The agent was not happy when we turned in our papers at the Business Class counter available to Advantage Platinum members. I suggested that if there was any doubt of passing security that we should check this out beforehand, but she did not like this idea. In Puerto Rico we have a saying for a person who looks very unfriendly and upset, “Tiene cara de agriada ” She then asked us to put Bailey on the scale and to take her out of the special luggage we have always used without problems for some 4 years. Upon seeing the dog, she coldly remarked that Bailey was too large to be carried in the cabin and had to be checked in. The position was that the dog had to be able to stand upright in the bag without having it bulge outwardly and to be able to freely turn around in the bag. We knew that Bailey was 3 or 4 pounds above the 20 pound limit, but she fits perfectly in the bag and moves around in the bag which fits under the seat in front of us as required. This new rule surprised us and my wife bargained and pleaded with her to no avail. The agent advised that she had to bring in her supervisor to make the final decision.

The supervisor arrived and as he approached us from some 15 feet away announced that the dog was too big and could not travel in the cabin with us. He supported the agent’s position respecting the stand up and move around rule. This meant that we had to purchase a new special luggage and take a flight the next day. My wife pleaded that this would kill Bailey who has never been without us, our daughter and Cristina who has done the manicuring and taken care of her when we have had to leave her in Puerto Rico. She once again argued, pleaded, cried, turned bright red, and even offered to never bring Bailey again on future flights. His inflexible position, with no indication of empathy or sympathy, was that he had to enforce the rules and the fact that others had not enforced the rules in the past had no bearing on his decision, nor would he make an exception despite the inconvenience this would mean given that this was our trip back home. 

Given that we had to transfer in Miami, the flights had to take into account the temperature there and so we were booked on a 5:30 am flight from Boston. Thus, in addition to having to buy special luggage , use taxis or re-rent a car and find a hotel that allows pets, we had to wake up at 3 am in order to make the flight. Talk about making life miserable for a customer who had logged over 2 million miles with American Airlines. As Pinky pointed out, we had chosen the longer two flight alternative with American because we had never had a problem in the past.

During all this time I said very little if anything letting Pinky make all the arguments that were rational, filled with emotion that should have evoked empathy and sympathy and at all times was respectful without ever a hint of personal attack despite the cold treatment she was receiving from the agent and the supervisor.  I later analyzed/rationalized my passive posture which was especially surprising given my new career precisely in helping others resolve conflict that I had commenced precisely 28 days before. While listening intently to see if there was anything I could or should add, I addressed in my mind the alternatives we had since it was pretty clear that we were not going to convince these two.    

I decided that our best alternative was to try the direct Jet Blue flight that left around midnight, or even the other flight that was at 8 am. The agent, who by the way was Puerto Rican, looked up the Jet Blue flights and confirmed my recollection. Even if Bailey had to go as check in baggage, the flights were direct and without the heat of Miami. We went to the Jet Blue terminal and had no problems whatsoever in booking the 11:59 pm flight with the dog in the cabin.

I called the Advantage Platinum number to cancel the next day flights and asked the agent to not charge us the $150 per ticket rebooking penalty fee which after consultation she was able to confirm . I mentioned to her that what upset and frustrated us the most was the complete lack of empathy/sympathy by the agent and her supervisor. Her apology together with the waiver of the rebooking penalty fee were somewhat redeeming steps in our relationship with American Airlines.

Why had I been so passive? First of all, I felt Pinky was doing an excellent job in negotiating, combining the rational with the emotional without losing control or being disrespectful. Secondly, at the time I could not come up with any additional argument or approach that I thought would be convincing or helpful with these two American Airline employees.  Thirdly, I was so taken aback by the negative and unsympathetic attitude of these two persons that stepping in did not seem fruitful and would just add to my frustration – better to spend my energies in looking for our Plan B.

After sleeping on this I concluded (rationalized) that what I had unconsciously decided was to not bargain with the devil – this is the title of a great book written by Robert Mnookin who chairs the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. I had recently finished the book with its theory that sometimes it is better to not negotiate.  My sense is that unconsciously my choice of the “nologue” or silence was the right choice under the circumstances.

With hindsight, what posture on my part could possibly have worked?  I would have accepted their dilemma of having to apply the dog must stand up and move around freely in the bag rule and tried to convince them that the rule is for the good of the animal. I would have reiterated Pinky’s argument that the dog fitted comfortably in the bag and she could turn around in the bag and even stand up fully albeit the bag would bulge. I would have acknowledged that we were at their mercy but suggested that they had to interpret the rule that hopefully they would agree is not black and white. American Airlines had allowed the dog in the cabin over various years, but more importantly, had allowed the dog to travel in the cabin from our home in Puerto Rico. This  put us in a very difficult position and the dog in danger with the Miami transfer after mid morning. I would then have asked them to huddle apart for a couple of minutes to see if they could interpret the rule in our favor under all the circumstances of this case.  It is impossible to understand the chemistry between these two employees, but I speculate that the agent put the supervisor on the spot with her strong position on the subject.  As time passed, I sensed that the agent did sympathize with our position and even mentioned in Spanish that she had a dog   Just maybe she would have championed our cause and in privates helped convince the supervisor.

Would all of this have worked? I doubt it very much … and probably this is why I kept my mouth shut choosing nologue with the devilish supervisor.   

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