Negotiating a Seat on a Plane When There Isn’t One


In this edition of The Edge I wanted to share this negotiation. It is a great use of the “invisible” skills.

Bob (one of my students – not his real name) was late flying into Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) on his way to Austin because of weather. He called the airline and was automatically rebooked onto a flight on the following day. He knew that there was still a later flight leaving DFW that night, however, the agent on the phone said the flight was full and the earliest I would be able to get into Austin was next day. After finally arriving in DFW he hustled to the gate to try to negotiate his way onto the plane.

Upon arrival, he overheard the conversation between the couple in front him with the gate agent, and it was heated. The gate agent told the couple that there was “nothing she could do”; they continued to yell and finally gave up their case and moved on.

BOB: “Hi, I’m Bob. It seems like they were pretty upset.”

GATE AGENT: She responded about how they had missed their connection and then said something along the lines of “we’ve had a fair amount of delays because of the weather.”

BOB: “The weather?”

GATE AGENT: She explained to me that multiple airports in the Northeast had experienced delays due to weather conditions. “It’s rippled through the system.”

BOB: “It seems like it’s been a hectic day.”

GATE AGENT: She opened up about a lot of “irritated customers” (like the ones before). She said a lot of people are trying to get to Texas for the two big college games.

BOB: “ The college games?”

GATE AGENT: She answered about the UT Ole’ Miss football game and that “every flight into Austin has been booked solid.”

BOB: “Booked solid?”

GATE AGENT: She went on to explain that every flight was sold out through the weekend, but that the weather was likely to “reroute a lot of people through a lot of different places.” She finally gets around to asking “So, how can I help you?”

BOB: “Look, it seems like you’ve been handling the rough day pretty well. I was also affected by the weather delays and missed my connecting flight. It seems like this flight is likely booked solid, however, it also might make sense that someone affected by the weather might miss this connection. Is there any possibility a seat will be open because of this?”

GATE AGENT: At this point she said nothing and began typing on her computer. Bob kept silent as he did not want to talk himself back out of what might be a done deal. After about a minute, she printed a boarding pass and handed it to Bob. She explained that there were a few seats that were supposed to be filled by people who would now arrive much later than this flight’s departure. She also placed Bob in Economy Plus setting (which generally has an upcharge) and mentioned that it was “all taken care of.”

BOB: “Thank you so much Wendy, I really appreciate it.”

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About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.