Imagine You Are on a Plane…

Imagine you are on a plane waiting to take off for Louisville. It is 5:00 pm and as instructed you have your seat belt buckled. The plane should have taken off 20 minutes ago and you are getting irritated.

A woman in an airline uniform stands at the front of the plane and speaks into the loud speaker.

“Good evening everyone. I am Sonia the booking agent for this flight. You may have seen me at the counter when you boarded. I want to apologize for the delay and explain to you what is happening. As you can see, this flight is completely full. Every seat is taken. We want to get you to Louisville just as soon as we can, but we have a problem. There are four crew members who need to get to Louisville tonight. If they don’t get there two early morning flights tomorrow will have to be cancelled and there will be a lot of disappointed travelers.

“I know you are thinking ‘why didn’t you think about his earlier? Why are you waiting til the last minute?’ and you’re right. We made a mistake and neglected to find available seats on earlier planes. This is not your problem, it’s ours. But I am hoping that you can help us out. Maybe some of you are able to delay your arrival in Louisville until our flight tomorrow at 11:00 am. If you are willing to do that and give up your seat to one of the crew we can try to make it up to you. We can give you $1,000 in cash, and put you up in the Hyatt Regency next to the airport and give you vouchers for dinner and breakfast, vouchers for any food or beverage you choose from any of the hotels restaurants, including the exclusive Sky Tower – that’s the rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel. We know this is a big inconvenience, but we are hoping that four of you will be willing to help us out.  Please push your button if you are interested. We really appreciate it and promise to get you and your luggage off the plane quickly. Thank you everyone very much for your patience and again I apologize for the delay.”

Of course everyone knows this scenario. It was all over the news a couple of weeks ago. The photos and footage of the man being dragged from the plane was only the beginning. The airline is facing enormous lawsuits from the man and probably from other passengers who were traumatized by the unfolding drama.

But before I go further, just tell me if you were groping for the button to push, hoping to be one of the lucky ones. My guess is you were. I gave this speech at the beginning of a training in alliance-building that I gave recently and every hand in the room shot up, ready for that dinner, the bottle of wine, the cash in the pocket and the 900 thread count sheets on that king size bed.

Bringing them back to the reality of the classroom, I asked them their reaction to the booking agent’s plea. Here is what I heard:

  • “I understood the problem the airline had. She was clear and honest about it.”
  • “When she asked for me to help, I wanted to, even before she offered that juicy package.”
  • “She apologized and said it was their fault. That impressed me.”
  • “It was a great deal! I couldn’t pass it up.”

(Only one person confessed that he would have pushed her to see how high that cash amount could go, but it was clear that there were plenty in the room who were ready to snap up the deal and he would have been left in the cold.)

I think the exercise tells us all we need to know about forming alliances.

  • If you have a problem and need an ally, say it clearly and honestly. “This is my problem….and I am hoping you can help.”
  • If you don’t already know, find out what that person or group needs. You’re asking for their help and you need to offer something of value in return. Don’t expect them to jump on your bandwagon just because you want them to.
  • If you have made mistakes, caused offense, done damage, admit it and apologize.

If you’re interested in more guidance on forming alliances and coalitions, for whatever cause, you can see the outline for the class by clicking below:


15 thoughts on “Imagine You Are on a Plane…”

  1. Lucy. Liked that. Yes, indeed. I remember you telling me, some time ago, about a seminar you had with (I think) a group of business men about the inherent unwillingness to apologize for, well, whatever it might be. I think of this often as I encounter angry people who are completely unable to look in the mirror and admit culpability as to things they have said and done. Sometimes this inability brings (even old and well established) friendships to a halt and, I’m sure, all kinds of other arrangements. You would think it might be relatively easy to say, Hey, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Or just, I’m sorry! Evidently, it’s not.
    May! Springtime. Have a lovely one. Myv.

    1. Those were lawyers for a federal agency, not businessmen, who were so reluctant to apologize. If they let their client apologize, they said, they would be opening them up to liability suits. In other words, they would be admitting guilt. We talked a lot about the need for the agency to relate honestly and humanly with the communities they were serving and that a genuine “I’m sorry” would help a lot, but they stood firm. We suggested “acknowledging” the situation instead of apologizing and got all tangled up in language. It left me sad. Those lawyers might have been able to apologize in a personal situation, but when they were on the job, no way.

  2. Hi Lucy,

    You are right in that clear explanations help people make decisions. Or as my Southern Grandmother used to say, A little “Sugar” goes a long way Ya’ll!.

  3. p.s. I’d say yes to the money/hotel deal right away as well! Unless, I suppose that I really HAD to be somewhere at some immediate point in time.

  4. Lucy, Looking at the other end: Are there situations where it would be advantageous for someone or some group to apologize for something they didn’t do?

    1. hmmm interesting. I feel as if I have done that but can’t quite dredge up the situation. It probably had to do with helping someone save face. Someone comes late to a meeting thinking it was started at 10 when it really started at 9. I might apologize for not making it clear, or not sending the email out earlier, or something like that. That’s easy — but what about something major? I saw a movie where the father confessed to a murder he didn’t do to save his daughter who was the murderer. Also, I work with agency staff who have to take the blame for things that their bosses did because that is what they are being paid for — to take the heat. Any thoughts from your rich experience with a giant institution that probably had much to apologize for?

  5. Apologizing for something you didn’t do is standard practice in this country’s penal system. It’s the way people get out of 20 year plus sentences. I saw a whole program about it recently. I can’t quite recall how it goes… but I do recall being outraged. Maybe you know.
    I can’t think of an occasion where I’ve apologized for something I didn’t do, but I can remember multiple times that I’ve ‘groveled’ in order to maintain some equilibrium or friendship. I’ve always, ALWAYS, afterwards, been p****** off at myself. And, the generous gesture, as I saw it, got me nowhere! HA! Myv. Sorry – yes! Again!!

  6. Thanks Lucy. The whole incident brings up the question of how to ask for help when it is needed. I was flying home last night hoping I could be of service if they needed my seat and wanted to pay me and put me up for the night. I was a little disappointed it did not happen, but feel like there is a new civility in this situation.

    1. Very interesting. I was wondering what the mood was like since the horrific de-planing of the passenger. I thought maybe passengers would be suspicious, grouchy, and jumping all over the flight crew or anyone with an airline uniform. Glad if that’s not the case. Any other recent flying observations from anyone?

  7. Lucy, being up-front and honest is refreshing, and I think the generous offers go a long way as well. In addition, the offers and responses should occur before anyone takes a seat-once we sit down many feel it’s”theirs”. Finally, any airline staff who need to reach a particular destination should be seated before anyone else (as you note in your scenario). – Dale

    1. Thanks, Dale. Yes, I think we do feel entitled once we sit in that seat and separating us from that seat should be done in the boarding area, not on the plane.

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